Paul Wheeler, on duty with Deerfield Valley Rescue, was called out to stand by with an ambulance along with Miller Longbotham at Nido’s gas station on West Main Street. “As we were parked at Nido’s we watched the river rise up, and even watched it flowing down West Main Street at us, then back into the river past the Country Gift Shop. It was still rising when they told us to move out of Nido’s and go to the state highway department garage (off Chimney Hill Road).”
Later Wheeler and Longbotham were called to Deerfield Valley Elementary School to pick up people who had been stranded by high water. “When we got to Route 100 and started driving south, we were driving through water a foot deep in some parts. There was a lot of debris and roads washed out. We did a lot of zigzagging down the road to the school. There, we saw cars and buildings underwater and destroyed. We picked up four people and the fire department told us to take them down Route 100, but to stay in the southbound lane. The bowling alley was still under water at that time. Everywhere you went or looked was a complete mess.”
Wilmington Town Clerk Susan Haughwout’s office is located on the bottom floor of the town office building – well below the 1938 flood level as indicated by a painted line on the clapboards of Wilmington Town Hall. When she woke up on the morning of August 28, her first thought was to get the records out of the ground-level vault and move them above the flood level. On the way to her office, she stopped by Dot’s for coffee – not knowing it would be the last time she’d be in “classic” Dot’s – and recruited some help. But it would also be the last time she saw the office she had worked in for more than a decade and a half.
“With luck on my side and five willing souls, we were able to whisk about 95% of the town’s irreplaceable records to safety,” Haughwout recalls. “(After the flood) I was so overwhelmed and concerned with the loss to businesses and homeowners, I didn’t realize what we lost in the town clerk’s office. It took a while for it to sink in that the place I had worked for 16 years had been destroyed, never to be the same again. Yes, we saved valuable town records and could conduct town business at our temporary quarters. But a little bit of my heart was left behind in that space where I had served so many customers, listened to so many complaints, solved so many problems, and really enjoyed my job and Wilmington’s people.”
John Boyd, a trustee of the 1839 Wilmington Baptist Church, knew that the rising water could be a threat to the church. After conferring by phone, he and other trustees decided to cancel Sunday services scheduled for that morning.
He couldn’t have known it then, but if the church services had gone on as scheduled, the parking lot likely would have been filled with parishioners’ cars at the time water overflowed the river bank, and churchgoers could have been caught inside the building. “At about 8 am I traveled the half-mile of private road to Route 9 and could see that we had plenty of rain,” Boyd said. “But I didn’t know it was just the beginning. I placed a sign on the front of the Wilmington Baptist Church, the church I have attended for more than 60 years, that read “Church canceled today.”
Just a couple of hours later, the church was among the buildings most damaged by the flood. “It was the furthest thing from my mind that we would not have church there again for 16 weeks, or until December 18, 2011!”
Immediately after the storm, Nicki Steel’s attention was focused on the 12-foot-wide, 8-foot-deep chasm at the end of her driveway separating her from White’s Road. But as she began to focus on the destruction in the village, she realized that many people would be eager to help, and volunteer labor would be essential to the initial recovery efforts. “I didn’t know how it would develop, but I started to make a list of names on a scrap of paper,” she recalls. “On Tuesday morning I went to the high school to see if anyone had thought of how volunteers would be connected to those in need. When I asked my question about volunteers, I got somewhat stunned looks and a ‘No, we haven’t.’ I said ‘Well, I’ll be in charge of that and will set up something downstairs.’”
By the end of the first day, Steel had collected four pages of names and telephone numbers of volunteers. But property owners still weren’t allowed into the flood zone to work on their buildings. “We sent some people up to Boyd Farm to help them harvest some vegetables, and in the afternoon a group of people went door-to-door with boil-water information.”
On Wednesday, requests for help started coming in, and volunteers went around the flooded area asking people what they needed for help. “That became a daily job and the personal outreach seemed so important. We often had to convince people that they could ask for help! We also spread information about the supplies and food, including all the great baked goods that people were bringing in. We became sort of an information hub and did our best to steer people in the right direction, all while assigning the hordes of volunteers.”
As things were needed, Steel says, they seemed to appear. When people were trying to dry their laundry on the high school lawn, Sara Clay volunteered to do laundry. When it became clear that there would be too much laundry for one person, someone who worked at the Grand Summit Hotel was there and helped arrange a laundry run by the hotel’s housekeeping staff. When one of the volunteer cooks, who had no electricity at home, needed a new mantle for his Coleman lantern, Maureen Drummey said her husband was going to Brattleboro through Greenfield, and asked if anyone needed anything. “It was almost magical. And no one said ‘no’ to anything. I’d point at someone, give them a task, and off they went.”
On Thursday, news started coming in about flooding and damage in other towns, along with information that they weren’t getting the help from outside agencies that Wilmington was getting. “Jen Burnell, from Jacksonville, stopped by for something and I told her to grab some bottled water. She said ‘Oh, I wasn’t sure I could. I thought it might be just for Wilmington.’ Well, she left the high school with a truck full of supplies and the reassurance we were all in this together. Then we started calling people who could come and load up supplies and take things to surrounding towns.”
On Friday evening, Steel, who has always painted the 1938 flood level on Town Hall, decided to paint the Irene flood level on the building. “I guess it was important to others, too, because as soon as it was painted, people would stop to take its picture. I think it expressed the magnitude of what we had been through.”
Many people have said the flood was the most terrible event they had ever experienced, but the community’s reaction was one of the best things they have ever experienced. “It was awful to see the devastation and realize how our town will never be the same. But, on the other hand, it was so inspiring to see people come together and work. Irene really brought out the best in people. Even though many of those feelings may not continue, we have all had the experience and I hope we can continue to call up the generosity that has been shown. Everyone has a different story, but we all shared in the event.”
To contribute a flood story, contact the Wilmington Historical Society at (802) 464-3004, or mail to The Wilmington Historical Society, PO Box 1751, Wilmington, VT 05363.