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A Spin at Ground Zero

Cycling in Irene's wake, volunteers offered help


Published October 5, 2011 at 9:33 a.m.

In the days following Tropical Storm Irene, countless Vermonters dropped nearly everything in their own lives to help their friends and neighbors clean up and move on from the devastating effects of Irene’s flooding. In Moretown, my wife and I joined our neighbors, as well as volunteers from throughout the region, to haul muck from basements and homes, clean what could be salvaged, remove drywall and insulation, prepare meals, run loads of laundry, and simply try to lend emotional support. In the dim reality of a relative disaster, it’s amazing how much a smile and a helping hand can brighten the world.

After several days of focused effort in our hometown, I felt the urge to reach out to those in hard-hit communities farther south. The White River Valley is where I spent summers and many weekends growing up — paddling, fishing, hiking, skiing and camping. Towns in this region such as Granville, Rochester and Pittsfield were still isolated by washed-out roads and bridges, and I knew these areas were not yet receiving the help they sorely needed. Out came the bicycle.

Together with my friend Matt Davis, who owns and runs Little Hogback Farm in Monkton Ridge, I parked in Warren and headed south on my bike. Our plan was to pedal toward Pittsfield via Route 100, help out along the way and return by dark.

As we entered the White River watershed, at the top of Granville Gulf, it was immediately clear how deeply affected this region was. Route 100 was washed out for hundreds of yards at a time and across both lanes in several sections, forcing us to shoulder our bikes and walk. When we rolled into Granville, much of the town seemed intact — until we turned up a side road and spotted nearly a dozen homes that had been flooded well above their doorsteps.

Oddly, no one was around. We soon learned that a connecting mountain road had just reopened, and a townwide meeting was commencing at the town hall. We helped unload a truckload of supplies there before being encouraged to head to Rochester, which had been especially hard hit.

After rolling through Hancock, where we met a family that had watched its classic-car collection nearly wash away (the cars survived, with significant damage), we found it hard to believe our eyes along the final approach to Rochester. The river had swept the entire valley — up to the height of power lines in some areas — leaving countless acres of prime farmland covered in gravel, silt, uprooted trees and debris. The scene was truly surreal.

As we entered the village of Rochester, much of which had been spared, we were drawn to what appeared to be its ground zero. Along both sides of Route 100, just north of the village, a relatively small mountain stream had jumped its banks and wiped out several homes. One house, we were told, had been the site of a dramatic rescue: Neighbors managed to pull the homeowner safely from his collapsed dwelling as it was swept into the raging waters below.

We bumped into Robert and Caroline Meagher, longtime Rochester residents who were just beginning to clean out their flooded home. We changed into our rubber boots, grabbed some gloves, and spent several hours removing muck and debris from their basement shop. Robert Meagher is an electronics engineer and programmer. Although much of his workshop was badly flooded, his spirits were surprisingly high. He attributed his mood to the knowledge that the people and pets in his life were OK, and most everything he’d lost was “just stuff.”

We learned that afternoon that limited vehicle access to Stockbridge and Pittsfield had been restored, and help was beginning to flow to those areas. So, rather than continue south, we decided to focus our efforts on Rochester — where the Meaghers greatly appreciated our help — before returning home.

We took a break to pedal around town, where we found it hard to stomach the toll Irene had taken on so many homes, yards and familiar sites along the river. Back at work at the Meaghers’ place, pushing mud-filled wheelbarrows up and out of their basement, neither Matt nor I could imagine doing anything else with our day. It was inspiring to be caught up in the current of kindness and generosity flowing into Vermont’s communities.

Later that day, as we pedaled north again, it seemed clear that Irene’s mark on Vermont would long outlast her visible stains on homes and riverbanks. Back in Moretown, after dark, neighbors and volunteers were still in the streets hauling and sorting debris. Others were gathered near the town hall, where a nightly community dinner and meeting were under way.

Without a doubt, the disaster was connecting neighbors like never before, and even sparking new friendships. Still, looking out across silt-covered gardens, broken fences and mountains of debris, we could see these towns would still need plenty of help from Vermonters like us in the weeks and months ahead.

Brian Mohr can be contacted through emberphoto.com.

All photos by Emberphoto/Brian Mohr & Emily Johnson. Click on each image to view a caption.