Vermonters knew that a hurricane was headed toward New England. In fact, Gov. Peter Shumlin had declared a state of emergency on August 27 in anticipation of flooding in the state. But local residents couldn’t have been aware that the Deerfield Valley, and Wilmington in particular, would soon become the focal point of the biggest flooding disaster in several decades.
Hurricane Irene peaked as a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds before it left the Caribbean Sea days earlier. By the time it hit North Carolina, Irene had been downgraded to a Category 1 storm. By the time it hit New Jersey, Irene had been downgraded to a tropical storm, and many along Irene’s path may have thought they were in the clear – at least as far as destruction caused by hurricane-force winds was concerned.
Certainly, the swollen rivers valley residents saw early on the morning of that fateful Sunday weren’t unusual, and some local residents may have breathed a sigh of relief as the pace of rainfall began to drop Sunday morning. The evening’s rainfall hadn’t been accompanied by damaging winds and, at least in the Deerfield Valley, there were not widespread power outages.
But then, in what seemed like a sudden turn of events, water levels rose dramatically as the saturated hills and mountains continued to shed water into already rain-swollen streams.
At about 10:30 am water in the Deerfield River had reached a dangerous level, and Wilmington Fire Chief Ken March sounded the flood alarm to warn people living in Wilmington Village that flooding was imminent.
By 11 am floodwaters were leaping over the Route 9 bridge next to Dot’s Restaurant, and there was still a swell of water coming down the river, heading toward the village.
At 11:30 am, floodwaters were beginning to fill Wilmington Village. Water that had backed up behind the bridge flowed around the Baptist Church and poured down Main Street. The river, now deeper and wider than at any time in recent memory, threatened buildings along the riverbank. The flood level was above that of the 1938 flood, the last great flood to hit the valley.
At the same time as Wilmington flooded, water levels had exceeded stream banks around the valley, and the torrent of water was washing out roads and culverts – in some cases even cutting deep into banks, permanently changing the flow.
As the water level rose, water broke through the back of the building housing Beth Leggiere’s Hand Knits yarn shop. The pressure of the rising water inside the building burst the windows, and the store spewed a steady stream of brightly colored skeins of yarn. Eventually the windows began to disgorge shelving and display stands.
Across the road, the water pressure burst the windows at the Maple Leaf pub and restaurant. The Maple Leaf’s furniture was pulled out into the street, where it was propelled down the flooded Main Street. At one point, a dumpster between Just Bead It and the Maple Leaf floated out into the road, made a left-hand turn, and headed through the intersection and down South Main Street - like it was driving itself out of the place.
On the other side of the bridge, the river was pounding Dot’s Restaurant. Water levels had risen well above the retaining wall supporting the restaurant’s parking area, and water slammed into the back of the building, rushing around the west side of the restaurant to join the whitewater on West Main Street. The rushing water peeled up huge chunks of pavement from Dot’s driveway and the bottom of Ray Hill, and scoured out the dirt and gravel, leaving a deep depression.
Down the street from Dot’s, the floodwaters swept through Bartleby’s, which had only recently moved to the new location, and the chamber of commerce office.
Perhaps the worst destruction, or at least the most complete destruction, was to Ann Coleman’s gallery, located next to the chamber of commerce building. Coleman’s building was swept away by the floodwaters, foundation and all. When the water receded later that day, the foundation slab was found lying across Route 9, but the building and its contents were nowhere to be found. For weeks after the flood, Coleman has said, people would find objects from the gallery along the shore of Harriman Reservoir.
On the south side of West Main Street, floodwaters inundated every building from the Crafts Inn to Cliff Duncan’s Jug Barn. According to witnesses, the water level at the Merchants Bank (now Sotheby’s) exceeded six feet.
On South Main Street, Cady & Dugan Law Offices and Skip Morrow’s gallery were pummeled until one end of the building gave way, leaving a large hole in the end wall. Mary Jane Finnegan’s Village Pub was flooded, as was Todd Gareiss’ building next door. Apres Vous, a restaurant on South Main Street, was flooded, along with houses and apartments between the South Main Street bridge and the restaurant. The home of Sherry and Tim Brissette, located close to the river near the South Main Street bridge, was destroyed.
All matter of flotsam and jetsam from points north sped through town, carried by the rushing waters. Logs, lumber, building supplies, furniture, and appliances twirled through, sometimes pausing to bob around in an eddy created by some unseen underwater obstruction.
One resident said she saw a cow go over the bridge. Dozens of propane tanks bobbed through town, some spinning as their contents were released under pressure. Soon, the downtown area smelled strongly of propane, and public safety officials guided curiosity seekers to safety.
In the meantime, public safety officials had set up a shelter and command center at Twin Valley High School. Residents, particularly those in or near the village, were urged to go to the shelter for their safety.
As quickly as the flood came, the flood receded. By about 2:45 pm the streets were drained, and fire department personnel had dealt with the few leaking propane tanks that hadn’t been whisked away by the flood. Green Mountain Power line workers quickly isolated the village and restored power to many outside the village by 3 pm. Even houses on the outskirts of the village had power restored by about 10 pm.
But for many who lived in the village, the shelter would still be home for many days. Within hours, village residents would discover that, although they might have electricity, they had no water and no sewer.
Water and sewer infrastructure had been badly damaged, and initial estimates suggested it could be weeks before service could be returned. Thanks to the hard work of Wilmington’s wastewater management department and the Wilmington Water District, service was restored before the end of the week. A boil water order was instituted, but subsequent testing found no contamination to the system.
Before darkness fell Monday evening, Vermont National Guard troops arrived to provide security for the village with manned control points and roving security. The village was sealed off to anyone without legitimate business in the flood zone. By Tuesday morning, cleanup and recovery had begun.
In the Deerfield Valley, one death was attributed to the flood, that of Ivana Taseva, a 20-year-old Macedonian woman. She was in a vehicle that attempted to drive through water near the Sunoco gas station near Deerfield Valley Elementary School when it was pulled into the water by a strong current. Two others in the car made it to safety, but Taseva was pulled under the water. One of the survivors, her boyfriend, went back into the water to search for her. Taseva’s body was found in a nearby field on Sunday, after the water receded.
Nationwide, Hurricane and Tropical Storm Irene caused an estimated $15.6 billion in damage, making it the fifth most damaging hurricane in US history. In Vermont, the damage has been estimated to be between $700 million and $800 million.