Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A One-Two Punch for the East Coast: Punch #2, the Hurricane

So how many times in history has the United States experienced both an earthquake and a hurricane within 5 days of each other, affecting the entire eastern seaboard?

None that I know of! (Though I confess: I haven’t taken the time to research it. If anyone is aware of such a combo, let me know.)

On August 28, while many of us were still twittering about the earthquake, Hurricane Irene rolled into town. She was aimed at the major population centers, which wisely evacuated or at least geared up, understanding the consequences better than in previous years since modern media have educated us about just how devastating such a storm can be.

Even in Vermont, we were ready, though all we expected was a day of high winds and heavy rain -- a common enough mixture that nobody was particularly worried. Perhaps we buttoned down tighter than usual.

Irene surprised everyone by devastating the inland northern mountains instead of the metropolitan coastline. Vermont topped the national headlines in the scope of its disaster.

At our place, it was a near miss: almost lost the pond, did lose a large hunk of the road and one tree in the dooryard, three elsewhere on the property, which both blocked the road and chopped off power. This sort of thing happened to many people, with scattered pockets of complete wipe-out. But in disaster terms, very few people were catastrophically affected for an event of this scale. Yes, a few deaths; yes, some ruin-your-life property loss and destruction, but nothing compared to having a hurricane wiping out a complete region or a tornado erasing a whole town. The damage here is mainly infrastructural, and causing one hell of a statewide headache.

In fact, it's a very weird disaster. You can drive around for a while with everything just fine, then turn a corner and whammo! Road gone. Or bridge gone, farm gone, house gone, whatever. Turn the next corner and everything's fine again. Over and over again.

What blind-sided us was the mountain flooding. You think of "flooding" as a valley / lowland / coastline / watershed thing, right? Here, every damn feeder stream, dry streambed, or path of least resistance flash-flooded into a nightmare torrent PLUS every river broke flood height records, all at the same time. The deluge came fast with near tsunami power and just ate through everything in its path. Even places like Killington Ski area, which is nowhere near a river and sits at 2000+ feet altitude, lost a hunk of one of its lodges, just to downslope runoff!

Another thing contributing to the scope of damage is how few roads this state has. Those of us who moved here from other areas often gripe about the lack of alternate routes to get anywhere. So when something like this happens, well, suddenly you can't get in, or out. Neither can the utility trucks or supply services. A statistic we've heard but not confirmed (but readily believe) is that every road in the state took damage somewhere along its course, whether a small washout around a storm drain, or a skinny slice across the road bed, or complete removal of surface and bed for full width and 4-20 feet down. Lots of bridges are gone; but, strangely, lots of bridges remain standing in perfect shape in the middle of a river with the approaches destroyed around them. As well, railroad beds have been undermined or damaged all over the place.

After the rain stopped, the winds began and it started raining trees, leading to situations like on our 0.9-mile dead-end dirt road: a just-passable washout caused by a seasonal stream bed flow overwhelming a culvert, followed a few dozen yards later by a massive boundary maple down across the road, followed a few dozen yards later by another massive boundary maple down across the road, followed a half-mile later by a deep washout of one-half the road width caused by a small creek overwhelming a big culvert, followed a few dozen yards later by a deep two-thirds-road-width washout caused by downhill current. Many citizens rolled up their sleeves and cut their way out, plugged holes, jury-rigged bridges, etc., while waiting for aid. Most everyone who could got out of their corner as soon as they could by whatever means was available and started reconnoitering to take stock, check on neighbors, and get started on putting things back together.

On our survey outings, we would find everything perfect for a couple miles, until coming upon a low spot in a village flooded by its river overrunning its bank -- and the bridge -- though when the water went down there was no damage aside from silt and debris. Often, when we sought out low areas that we expected to be devastated, based on springtime recurrences extrapolated to flash-flood level, things were just fine a day or two later -- while up high, roads were not just gouged out, but utterly destroyed, either in one gash or for hundreds of yards. Many of the worst hit were villages with in-town rivers, or hamlets where two streams converged. Every area in south-central Vermont, as well as scattered spots all over, saw these scenarios to one degree or another, some to the nth degree. I understand it was the same in the Adirondacks, Catskills, and other regions.

Several Vermont towns were headline-makers, where people were simply stuck on a wooded hill like an island. They’ve had to walk out, and it will be a long time before things are repaired enough to resume normal life. In our case, the partial washouts allowed us to come and go in cars, but large utility trucks couldn’t get in to repair the snapped wires and damaged poles until the road had been repaired. As a little back road with 8 houses, we were pretty darn low on the priority totem pole, so we expected to be at least a week without power. Thank goodness for generators!

Little did we know how resourceful power companies can be. After only three days without juice in our neighborhood, workers showed up in a small platoon, parked their big rigs outside the damaged area, hauled 9 guys in via pickup truck, and fixed the broken line and skewed pole by hand, whistling while they worked.

As in all disasters, people have been coming together and doing wonderful things. Neighbors who otherwise mind their own business went out and about talking and helping each other. Communities, particularly the hard-hit ones, banded together to solve their own problems while waiting for help, and organized themselves into productive coping. Generous business owners threw open their doors for community aid.

For instance, two towns over, in the ski resort town of Ludlow, whose main street was a deep river on Sunday afternoon and evening, and many of whose people suffered great property damage, there's a restaurant with a pub-style bar where spouse and I socialize once a week. The company is good, the drinks are huge and reasonably priced, and the food is comforting and tasty and also reasonably priced. The long-time owner, after watching the water lick at his doorstep, and who depends on both locals and tourists to keep him in gravy, opened early the first day after and set up a free, all-you-can-eat buffet, charging only for drinks. Didn't jack the drinks price, either, and all tips went to the town fund.

We went there both nights -- the first, for aftershock company and to avoid opening the refrigerator, the second by intent because the first had been so much fun and such a good resource for information. That night a cheer went up in town when a convoy of 20+ camouflage-painted heavy-duty vehicles hauling heavy-duty equipment drove through town (presumably National Guard but who knows). Road repair a-comin' soon! Then, when we arrived home, the power company called to get up-to-date info on what they needed to do to fix our service. Both responses were much quicker than anticipated, and heartening. In the week since the hurricane, we’ve seen awesome responses by all towns, services, and citizens, putting things back together faster than expected.

While waiting, we organized our life around the generator. Made sure it stayed running. Made sure we had enough fuel for a long haul. Figured out how long we needed to run it, how many times per day, to keep the refrigerator and freezer alive. Coordinated computer time, and using lights and plumbing, during generator runs. Then, in off times, going back outside and dealing with things -- cutting, hauling, talking with people locally or via phone (as holdouts with a landline, which is underground, we always have phone [until, that is, zealous reconstruction crews started cutting lines!]), resupplying, reconaissance, repairing equipment that broke just when we needed it, and so forth. I even managed to get a bit of paying work done, but hubby was shut down completely, since we haven’t kitted up to run his machine shop off the generator.

In all, for a disaster we fared pretty well, and our problems could be categorized as "major inconvenience causing lifestyle disruption and setback of income, but not unrecoverable loss." For which I am VERY GRATEFUL! We gained better perspective, once the power came back, by watching videos on the Internet about the Japan tsunami. Oh My God. In comparison to that, Hurricane Irene was a flea bite.

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