Wilmington assesses downtown destruction

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WILMINGTON -- Fire Chief Ken March reported to the Wilmington fire station early Sunday morning to set up an Emergency Operations Center and prepare for the coming onslaught of Hurricane Irene. But by 10 a.m., March and his fellow firefighters were facing an emergency situation right at their own fire house.

"We had to bale out of the building," he said Monday afternoon. "The water rose rapidly and we had to scramble to get the equipment out."

The trucks were all brought to higher ground, and March believes the brick fire house is still structurally sound, but the meeting and training room, the office, dispatch and storage areas are all destroyed, as are 40 sets of firefighting gear valued at $2,500 each.

March was speaking outside of the new operations center at Twin Valley High School, which had canceled the first day of classes in anticipation of the storm. Schools in Wilmington and Whitingham will remain closed until next week.

Instead of students and teachers going in and out of the classrooms on Monday, there were nearly two dozen National Guard troops coming in and out between shifts. A temporary shelter was set up in the gym with cots for about 40 downtown residents who had spent Sunday night there, and other residents were milling all about the grounds on Monday, helping neighbors or just trying to catch a glimpse of the damage to downtown Wilmington.

Few people could get a close look at Main Street as police and National Guard troops blocked off all access points to everyone but emergency personnel.

"We're not letting anybody into town at this point until we can check that the buildings are structurally sound," Police Chief Joe Szarejko said Monday. "Unfortunately we lost a lot of infrastructure here."

He said the police department and the town clerk's office were flooded out. He was uncertain Monday afternoon about the extent of the damage and whether the offices could be restored.

Structural engineers were going building to building on Monday, putting red tape across those deemed unsafe to enter. Among the buildings with red tape, according to March, was Dot's, a popular eatery in Wilmington.

"That's a landmark," he said, shaking his head.

March and other firefighters have a special fondness for Dot's because the restaurant brings the volunteers food and beverages whenever there's a fire in town, and the owners refuse to accept anything in return.

Facebook was abuzz with chatter from area residents bemoaning the loss of Dot's and the overall devastation of the downtown area. A few people posted pictures of water gushing over the bridge next to Dot's and roaring down Main Street. Other pictures showed the field where the Deerfield Valley Farmers' Day Fair was held earlier this month, but instead of the fair it was completely submerged in water Sunday afternoon.

Just up the road, another popular eatery -- Wahoo's -- was also flooded out. By the time the water finally receded, the awning had partially collapsed and the ground underneath was eroded, exposing most of the foundation.

Other pictures taken after the water had receded revealed significant damage to the stone foundation at Dot's as well.

"It looked like a third world country," said local resident David Messing, describing the flash floods. "The water was just absolutely incredible. There were surges of water going down the street. I saw multiple propane tanks that had broken off and were hissing gas. The downtown smelled like gas and propane."

Messing was outside of the high school chatting with fellow residents Clair Huntley and her daughter, Elise. The two came down from Rich Road to check on friends and to attend mass at Lady Fatima Church.

"When you make it through something like this, that's the time to thank God," said Clair Huntley.

Meanwhile, inside the high school was Dan Hollister, the constable from Searsburg. He drove to Wilmington to get fuel for some of his residents who were on oxygen and needed fuel to run their generators.

"Our dirt roads are gone," said Hollister. "We need material and there's no way to get material in. Power is a big issue, too. It's going to be a couple days at least (before Searsburg gets power back)."

However, he continued, "The biggest challenge is, should we need emergency response, it's going to be very limited. There's no direct route to a hospital. But we got it made compared to people down here," he said, gesturing toward downtown Wilmington.

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Chief March said this was about the worst disaster he's seen in his more than 30 years as a firefighter. Before coming to Wilmington about two years ago he lived in eastern Massachusetts, and recalled the devastation he saw there from the blizzard of 1978 and the spring flooding that followed.

"This is far worse because of how fast it was and how violent it was," he said of the damage in Wilmington.

Still, under the bright, warm sun of the following day, he said, "It doesn't look as bad as I thought it was going to. I had expected to see major buildings in the downtown area go into the river, but they didn't. Some sustained major damage, but they didn't get washed away."

Wilmington did report one death from the storm. Ivana Taseva, a 20-year-old woman from Macedonia who was in a work program at Mount Snow, drowned in the flash flooding on Route 100. The vehicle she was in got stuck in water that had flooded over the road. When she attempted to get to the dry land she was swept away, according to Szarejko. He said the body was recovered about 175 yards away, near the Deerfield Valley Elementary School.

March said they almost had another fatality when a man tried kayaking down the river through downtown Wilmington, and the kayak turned over.

"We thought he was lost, but he popped up around Church Street. He got a rather stern talking to by both the police department and myself," said March.

More scenes of devastation could be seen just to the south, in the Jacksonville section of Whitingham. Huge chunks of road were washed away on Route 100 heading into Jacksonville, and even more on Route 112 near the Honora winery.

On Monday afternoon, State Trooper Eric Hawley was outside his rented house on Gates Pond Road, just across the street from the Jacksonville General Store. With the help of his friend, Dwight Williams, Hawley was sorting through the waterlogged debris outside his house, putting whatever could be saved onto a trailer. Nearby were about a dozen photo albums, yearbooks and framed pictures laid out over a blue tarp on the lawn to dry in the warm Monday afternoon sun.

Hawley wasn't even home when the brook behind his house rose up into his living room. He went out on duty at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, tending to storm emergencies in the surrounding area, as the water was starting to rise behind his house.

"It was pretty chaotic, devastating," Hawley said of the storm and flood damage he witness around the area. "I've never seen anything like it."

While he was out helping other people, the small brook behind his house swelled quickly to a raging torrent, with his girlfriend, Lisa Gardner, home alone.

Then, along came next door neighbor Brian Sullivan, whose house sits up higher on the other side of the brook. He helped evacuate Gardner and another neighbor in the same apartment house.

"I was afraid that house was going to get washed away," said Sullivan.

"Moments after my girlfriend left, the waves started hitting the old brick retaining wall," said Hawley.

By the time it was over, the brook had eaten away at the stone foundation on the back corner of the house, and left a water mark about a foot high in the living room.

Neighbor helping neighbor seemed to be a reoccurring theme throughout both towns.

"It was devastating all over, but everybody's been pulling together," Town Clerk Almira Aekus said from the Whitingham Municipal Center.

Aside from a little water in the basement, the building made it through the storm relatively unscathed. There was more damage outside as the parking lot was undermined by the small brook that runs alongside Route 100 in front of the Municipal Center. Much of the pavement there was left in crumpled waves after the water receded.

While some areas of the parking lot were unusable, the town clerk's office was open Monday afternoon. In fact, the entire Jacksonville center was busy, with people scraping, shoveling and hosing the mud off their driveways and parking lots. Power was restored Monday afternoon, and the First Stop gas station on Route 112 was open for business.

A public information meeting will be held at 2 p.m. today at the Dover Elementary School. For updated information on hurricane recovery for the Deerfield Valley, visit www.visitvermont.com.

Melanie Winters can be reached at mwinters@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 161.


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