BRATTLEBORO -- The fierce power of Tropical Storm Irene's torrential rain may have taken the Smiths' beloved clubhouse downstream on Aug. 28, 2011, but it didn't take their tenacity with it.
Proof of that is their new, nearly finished and flood-proof clubhouse, which is bigger and taller than the first one, as if to defy the brook that transformed their lives that day, albeit sited a little farther from its edges.
Aaron Smith, with the help of his children, Adelaide, now 7, and Cooper, now 4, had built a clubhouse during the summer of 2010 made of lumber, hard work and lots and lots of love on their Western Avenue property that bordered the Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro.
On the morning of Irene's arrival, at the urging of his wife Jennifer and her concerns over the warnings she'd heard that the flooding may get bad, Aaron examined the edges of the brook. Confident that he'd seen a lot worse he continued with his plans to help a friend work on a car in Hinsdale, N.H. That was 11 a.m. By the time he reached Hinsdale 15 minutes later, Jennifer had called Aaron four times, updating him with the rising water levels, now covering their yard. By 1 p.m. their beloved clubhouse, along with their garden and doghouse, had succumbed to the swirling waters.
Jennifer watched with worry as 4-foot high water rushed by their foundation, merely seeping into the basement as silt and sand clogged any holes that may have allowed the water to flow freely.
By the time the water retreated back within its banks, there were rocks and sand and debris where once the kids had played on green grass, 36 linear feet of foundation had buckled at the back end of their home, and the back stairs had been ripped off.
That was two years ago.
Today, Aaron has done most of the structural repairs to their home, Jennifer has a new garden growing, and the rebuilt clubhouse is receiving its finishing touches. But it hasn't been an easy road.
Aaron recalled his first reaction as he surveyed the damage. It was an overwhelming feeling of "where do I start? All were sad about the clubhouse, but Jennifer is quite proud of her children's response as they were, as she said, "wise beyond their years," and happy that they still had their house and everyone was OK.
They found their mangled clubhouse caught on fallen trees near the Farmers' Market, more than a block downstream from their home. The doghouse was found two houses away, upside down, in which crayfish had taken up residence. For days they picked up contents from the clubhouse out of neighbors' yards and cleaned them, filling two dumpsters with unsightly litter that had been left behind, strewn everywhere.
Even as Aaron dealt with his own loss though, he never lost sight of the needs of his neighbors. When he was approached by Keene State University students offering to help him rebuild the clubhouse, he redirected them instead to his neighbor, John Kratz, on the other side of the Whetstone, and asked that they use their resources to help him, pointing out the 10 person-hot tub now transplanted onto what was once his lawn, and large strips of tattered blue tarps still entangled in uprooted trees trapped along the edges of the brook. Besides, the clubhouse was a personal project for him and his family; he wanted it to be a personal project again when it was rebuilt.
They were all eager to rebuild the clubhouse, but first things first as the Smiths wrangled with the red tape for reimbursement from their flood insurance. Luckily Aaron, a manufacturing manager at G.S. Precision, is also a pretty handy guy and was able to do most of the work himself. This helped bridge the gap between estimated value of the damage assessed by their insurance company, and the actual cost. They scurried to meet deadlines their insurance company imposed upon them to qualify for that coverage, so the clubhouse had to wait.
The children were patient though.
As the two-year anniversary of the storm slips by, with countless hours of work under their belt, the Smiths feel that they are almost back to where they were before that horrible day. However there are remnants as reminders. A patch of sand left by Irene still remains where Cooper plays with his trucks while his mom gardens, and Aaron still has some finishing work to do and fences to rebuild that aren't covered by insurance.
The clubhouse was rebuilt with posts deeply rooted in the ground, and the telephone pole thick posts supporting the upper levels are now two feet higher than the original design.
Aaron noted that what he learned most from this experience was that when disaster strikes, and things feel overwhelming, to just focus on a small area at a time, keep plugging along, and eventually you'll see results. That's good advice for just about any endeavor in life.
When asked how he felt about all the predictions that as the climate changes, storms will worsen and this could possibly happen again, he matter-of-factly replied he would have to seriously consider moving, consternation written all over his face.
For the time being though, Jennifer can once again play her game with Adelaide and Cooper when the clubhouse looms into their sight as they arrive home, "I spy something built with love!" to which the kids joyfully -- and loudly -- reply "My clubhouse!"