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A Yankee Notebook

September 12, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Mother’s alma mater, a small Episcopal school a few miles east of Simmons Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is holding its annual homecoming weekend in mid-October. A couple of days ago, when she called to confirm her attendance, the alumni secretary on the other end of the line said wonderingly, “We’ve been hearing all kinds of stories about what’s been happening up in Vermont since Hurricane Irene. Y’all are hardy people!”

He needn’t have sounded surprised; Vermonters have been proving that for over 200 years. They fought both New York and New Hampshire for ownership of the land. Denied statehood by Congress, they formed their own republic in 1777.

In their constitution Vermonters abolished slavery (probably the first republic in the world to do so), established universal (male) suffrage, and instituted public education. They fought for the colonies in the Revolution, even though they were not yet recognized as a political entity, and distinguished themselves in some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War. When it comes to floods, they’ve been here before, and know the drill. With most of their villages and towns located in river valleys – originally to avail themselves of water power for their mills – they’re subject from time to time to the damages wrought by overflowing rivers with nowhere to go but right through town.

A year after the great flood of 1927, in September of 1928, Calvin Coolidge, in a speech given from the rear platform of a train in Bennington, recognized the spirit of the “indomitable people” of the “brave little state of Vermont.” They were a race of pioneers, he said, who’d almost beggared themselves to serve others. It’s probably his most famous speech ever – at least in Vermont; other pithy aphorisms of Coolidge’s, regarding strikes against the public good and refusing to seek a second elected term, are still well-known nationally.

The recent approach of Tropical Storm Irene was the subject, by area television weather forecasters, of dozens of hours of hyperventilation and speculation, as she swept out of the Caribbean, came ashore along the East Coast, and headed up the Hudson Valley. Much benumbed by similar severe warnings about blizzards, subzero temperatures, and other weather emergencies, I tended to take the threat with a grain of salt, while Mother treated it much more seriously. She laid in fresh batteries, and insisted I fill our six-gallon water jug against the probable power outage. We were scheduled to spend the week in Orford, New Hampshire, anyway. If there were a loss of power here that went on for a while, at least no one’d be opening the refrigerator door.

On Sunday afternoon of the storm, against her advice to take the Interstate, I headed across Vermont. We were stopped just east of Waits River, where the river had jumped a curve and was flowing across the road. Retreating, we tried US 302 to Wells River, and were turned around there, too. So it was back to Barre and down the Interstate, after all, eating humble pie the whole way.

The Upper Valley was hit hard by flooding below the junction of the Connecticut and White Rivers, mostly because all those parking lots and big box stores stand in the flood plain. We had hardly a hint of that in Orford; and our daughter, Martha, in East Montpelier, who was picking up our mail and newspapers, assured us all was well there, too.

But then we began to hear about the devastation in the central valleys. Television coverage, where crews could get in, showed dramatic footage of missing chunks of highways; YouTube ran cellphone video of culverts and bridges washing away. Mother alerted me to a change in Vermont Public Radio’s regular noontime program, “Vermont Edition”; it was now at least 90 minutes long, and featured conversations with people involved in emergency response work. According to Betty Smith, producer of the VPR commentary series, “Several [VPR] staff members had homes that were directly affected. Vermont Edition became a statewide live forum for critical information, an effort further deepened and enhanced by a pro-active web team. And our news staff did exceptional work – hiking, biking and hitching rides on ATVs to get to – and report from – isolated towns and villages.” News Editor Ross Sneyd was central to the effort, sending reporters to the sites of stories and, as calls from around the state came in with offers, compiling lists and phone numbers of resources available to people in distress from the storm. He recalled vacationing staff, and even hired some NPR reporters to help out.

The VPR frequency at times resembled the bush radio popular in the little villages of the Far North: people exchanging information, looking for help, offering to help, broadcasting the description of a missing horse or car, warning of unmarked washouts. Both the radio and a blog on the station’s website created a statewide sense of community – of family, even: that we’re all in this together, and, together, we can handle it. It’s critical, according to Sneyd, that the station live up to one of the most important items in its mission statement: public service. Many organizations, including the station, have held fund-raisers to aid flood victims.

Inevitably, amid all the calamitous loss and grief, sunny stories have begun to emerge – like the daily odyssey of 33 students at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden, who, cut off from their school by a highway washout, hike half a mile over a woods road to a small school bus at the other end. Volunteers escort them on the trail. When a reporter asked one kindergartener how she does it, she gave a reply that would have warmed the cockles of Calvin Coolidge’s heart. “I just walk straight ahead,” she said.

Photo by Willem lange