WILMINGTON -- Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011 dawned gray and rainy, and Craig Brandon hunkered down in his Surry, N.H., home to ride out the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene content that he had done all he could -- he had armed himself with bottled water, flashlights and other supplies in case the power went out.
As the day unfolded, though he remained out of harm's way, he could see that something monumental was unfolding.
"I started to hear stories of all these towns nearby," said Brandon, a former journalist, now project editor and publisher of Surry Cottage Books of Keene, N.H. "I immediately saw there was a book in this."
Within a few days, the project was under way, and the result is "Good Night Irene," a 312-page book packed with stories about Irene's damage, heroic deeds and neighbors helping neighbors, along with more than 250 photographs, across a wide swath of territory from the Catskills in New York, to the Berkshire and Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts to several communities in Vermont.
Windham County plays a prominent role -- three of the nine chapters dealing with destruction focus on Wilmington, Brattleboro and the Rock River Valley.
Brandon, who co-wrote the book, spent considerable time in Brattleboro, Wilmington and Wardsboro conducting interviews, collecting stories and taking photographs.
He returns to the area to present a PowerPoint program based on the book twice in the next few days. On Sunday,
"I'm kind of interested in seeing people that I talked to and finding out how they're doing," said Brandon. "I realize the story is not over."
Within a few days of the storm, Brandon had decided to do a book about Irene's widespread destruction, but then came the question of how to go about doing it and get it out in a timely way.
"For one person to go around and do all those interviews, it would have taken at least a year," said Brandon.
So Brandon reached out to freelance writers in several of the areas and got an enthusiastic response ... and then, nothing more, as many of his freelancers simply lost interest and blew off the assignments. Ultimately, he did find a reliable team that included Catskill, N.Y., area reporter Michael Ryan, Vermont writer Nicole Garman, Waterbury photographer Orin Langelle and local contributors Luke Q. Stafford, Sarah Adam and Wilmington area state legislator Ann Manwaring. Christine Hart of the Brattleboro Housing Authority and FEMA were great sources of photographs.
Their work created another challenge for Brandon -- deciding what to put and what to leave out. Eventually, he settled on eight towns "because they had the most interesting stories to tell."
"I expected some complaints about stuff that we left out, but I think people can see enough of their own stories in there," said Brandon.
Those stories run the gamut from heroic to humorous to heartbreaking. And the emotions were still raw when Brandon was doing interviews four months after the storm.
"A lot of people were still in shock. Some of them just couldn't talk about it. Other people were really straightforward, but what they were telling us was kind of scary. They were having nightmares or anytime it rained, they were having flashbacks," said Brandon.
Some of the interviews had to stop because the subjects were overcome with emotion. Later on, as the book was being written and edited, Brandon and his team were careful to treat those who talked to them with care.
"We haven't heard anything about insensitivity. We did a whole edit just for that. We asked: ‘What is insensitive about this?' said Brandon, explaining that the decision to change the word "victims" to "survivors" was one of the things that came out of that process.
Still, "Good Night Irene" manages to convey in powerful ways the storm's fury and the drama of the people caught up in it. Another thing that emerges in clearer light through the book is how widespread and monumental Irene's swath was. In the immediate aftermath, folks had so much to do in their own communities that a wider look was impossible. With much work still to do, that broader perspective is still difficult. "Good Night Irene" accomplished that.
Thanks to the book, folks in Wilmington may develop a special kinship with the residents of Prattsville, N.Y., a tiny Catskills town that was nearly completely destroyed. And folks who were cut off on Augur Hole Road can relate to the residents of the Vermont town of Rochester whose utter isolation was one of the scariest challenges they faced.
"One of the things the book does is it puts things in perspective. ... It really shows how big a storm this was. We had a month's worth of rainfall in a day. I think that was an unprecedented amount of rain," said Brandon, pointing out that landmarks, including several covered bridges, that had withstood all that Mother Nature had thrown at them for 150 years or more, didn't survive Irene.
What Irene didn't destroy was the basic goodness inherent in people, and that shows up in story after story in the book. Everything from small acts of kindness to heroic, life-saving rescues are part of Irene's story.
"One of the things we got everywhere was really that selflessness where people helped each other out. Right away, there was concern about other people," Brandon. "That kind of instant instinct to help people out was really what saved a lot of people's lives."
Brandon has high hopes for "Good Night Irene." In addition to serving as a valuable historical document of the storm, the book contains two pages of resources about where readers can donate money or volunteer their time. He also hopes Irene will prompt people to reevaluate rules around land use, flood plains and mobile home parks so that history doesn't repeat itself.
In addition to "Good Night Irene," Surry Cottage Books also published Dave Eisenstader's "The Weight of the Ice: The Northeast Ice Storm of 2008."
"My friend down the hall calls me the Master of Disaster," Brandon said.
Coming up this fall, Surry Cottage Books will publish Eisenstader's "Embattled Brattleboro," about Brattleboro's tragedy-filled 2011.
For more information, visit www.surrycottagebooks.com or call 603-499-6500.
Jon Potter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 149.