HURRICANE IRENE: SURVIVOR'S GUILT
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 31, 2011
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- We were lucky.
The phones have been out for three days.
During the storm, we lost power at our house three times. Green Mountain Power restored it three times. The last time, it stayed on.
We were lucky. So we have running water and lights. From one satellite dish we have Internet access. From the other, we have television.
Even so, the bathtub remains full of water. I hate to waste a resource that in a less lucky time might have been precious. So I'm bailing it out, bucket by bucket, and using it to flush the toilet.
The many bottles of water we filled in preparation for the storm have been put away for the next power outage, because power outages are a fact of life up here in the Dummerston hills.
The candles and the battery lamps have been tucked away.
As I said, we were lucky.
Losing the phone is a small problem compared to losing homes, or inventories, or incomes, or in a few sad cases, lives.
On Irene Sunday, the thick, dense, fast-falling rain swept around our home to flow in already-dug channels. Of course it flooded the laundry room, but then, every rainstorm floods the laundry room.
We're Vermonters; we keep mops and a dehumidifier in there as a matter of course.
We were lucky.
Perhaps I have survivor's guilt, but unlike Odysseus lashed to the mast to avoid the siren's call, I have lashed myself to email, Facebook, the television and the radio.
When I began my career as a journalist in 1989, there were only three news sources in Windham County. The Brattleboro Reformer was the daily newspaper, but we were competing with the newsrooms of radio stations WKVT and WTSA.
Now, media is everywhere.
The invaluable and heroic Tim Johnson of WTSA stayed on the air and on Facebook for days, feeding us the latest news and information.
Brattleboro Area Community Television turned its cameras on - giving us live television coverage that didn't originate in far-away Burlington.
Still shots of improbable damage began to appear almost immediately on Facebook.
Since my husband is the news editor of the weekly Commons - we have two viable newspapers in Brattleboro now! - he set up a newsroom in my office consisting of three laptops, a generator, Tim Johnson on the radio and many bottles of water - and updated the Common's Website all during the storm.
I happened to be watching the Weather Channel on television when Jim Cantore had his now-famous meltdown over what was happening in his home state of Vermont (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VekLMQByQu4&feature=share).
Then Sunday night, Brian Williams showed footage of the rampaging Whetstone Brook.
Vermont mentioned on a national network? Without talk of fall foliage, apples, horse-drawn sleds, maple syrup or cheese?
Meanwhile, Vermont Public Radio, with its many, many stations - the executive director keeps a cheat sheet of all the call letters hanging above her desk - has become the most central source for state-wide news. Its Web site became Storm Central.
Anne Galloway at Vermont Digger (vtdigger.org) was making regular updates on her site and posting them to Facebook.
People on iBrattleboro.com were posting photos, descriptions and questions - most having to do with what roads are open. They still do.
By Monday, when Steve West's "Live and Local" went on the air on WKVT, network television was all over Brattleboro. Randy was writing a running news story on the front page of the Commons. The Reformer only had one reporter working on Sunday, but by Monday it had several and put together some marvelous photos of the disaster. They've updated it since then under the heading "The Devastation of Irene." (http://www.reformer.com).
Tuesday's paper (banner headline: "Devastation") did them all proud.
By the time Cantore came to Brattleboro on Tuesday, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSAjNdF9CvE&feature=youtu.be) YouTube had videos of flooding from all over the state. You could watch the White River rise, see the flooding in Sharon, Warren, Grafton, Waterbury, Brandon and just about everywhere else that had a river run violently through it.
The Reformer's arts editor, Jon Potter, was on Fox News. Folks who don't know much about Vermont will learn "what resilient and strong and neighborly, helpful people live in that great state," newscaster Shepard Smith told Potter. The last time Vermont was on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly was accusing us of embracing child molesters.
Television, radio, newspapers, Facebook, Webcasts - my tiny area of Vermont has become thoroughly media-centric.
Why do we have so much media in such a small place? Is it because the Internet makes it easy? Is it because we're a creative community which attracts creative people, some of whom enjoy writing or photography or video-making?
Is it because - and this is an idea I've been turning over in my head for a while - it takes intelligence as well as hardiness to live in Vermont, and despite evidence to the contrary (E Channel, Fox News and all the gossip sites) it takes intelligence to do media?
I drank in Irene's devastation through the eyes of others for two days. Then not being able to stand it anymore, I went downtown to see it for myself.
The corner of Main Street and High Street was quiet, but that's where the Brooks House, empty since the fire, remains a mere shell of itself.
Main Street was open for business and I saw many young women in sandals and light dresses.
I ran into Mara Williams, the curator of the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center. She had amazing pictures of the raging storm on her cell phone. "I came down on Sunday to buy the Times and saw it all," she said.
Flat Street was all deep mud, earth-moving equipment and policemen.
Behind Flat Street, the Whetstone was still raging.
At the Brattleboro Food Co-op parking lot, I ran into Frederic Noyes of BCTV. He was taking pictures. He said he didn't understand why he was still taking pictures, but he had to. I thanked him for BCTV's coverage - for two days, I had been watching the storm through his eyes.
On my way to the Connecticut River I ran into artist Terry Sylvester. She pointed to the red brick building that stands just at the corner where the Whetstone joins the Connecticut.
"I used to live there," she said. "There's an open window in the basement. Water has been pouring through it for days."
I wonder if the building will withstand the flood damage, or whether it will topple later in the week.
Terry had a question I was hearing more and more. Did I think Brattleboro was - well, in some way cursed?
The Brooks House fire, then the drug murder where the woman's body was found near the Dummerston Covered Bridge, then the assassination - in the Co-op, of all places! - of the manager by the wine buyer.
With only three murders in the whole state so far this year, Brattleboro has become the murder capital of Vermont.
As a community, it seems like we've gone reeling from tragedy to tragedy, even before Irene decided to come up the valley.
Terry's question reminded me that one of the Republican twits who is running for president said Irene's destruction in Vermont was a warning from God.
For what, I wondered? Are we cursed because we support gay marriage? Or because our parents' generation swallowed the myth about nuclear energy being too cheap to meter, and as a result we've polluted the shores of the Connecticut River for generations to come.
I figure we've just had a run of bad luck. We're not so important that we deserve a "curse." Is there a curse on the Sudan, where people are starving and dying of thirst? Or on Syria, where they're being shot by their own government? Or Libya, which has shed the blood of 50,000 on its way to becoming free?
Brattleboro is not the center of the world. A hurricane does what a hurricane does. Sometimes it destroys in Florida. This time it destroyed in Vermont.
I stood on the Hinsdale Bridge, which shakes when cars go over it anyway, and looked down at the Connecticut River. It was rising higher and higher - it would crest in a few hours - and it was the color of light mud. Branches, tires, lumber and boxes were traveling in the current.
Usually, the Connecticut River looks bland. Now it looked dangerous, like a raging river in the Amazon.
By Wednesday, Facebook was full of storm videos, photo albums and notes about people helping other people. I was back to being glued to the screen, trying to comprehend the damage.
The state was warning people not to eat their vegetables if their gardens had been overrun by flash flooding. What with all the trees, gas canisters, cars, drowned animals and other things carried away by the rivers, the crops of many farms have been wiped out.
Much farmland has been contaminated. Vermont was on the verge of becoming one of the capitols of the organic farm movement. It takes many years of careful land cultivation before a farm can be certified organic.
Does this mean that contamination by floodwater will set back organic farming here for years?
Lately, Vermont has also seen a rise in manufacturing. But it takes roads to keep industry moving, and the state has lost many of its roads.
In all this feel-good talk about helping neighbors and contributing to Red Cross, I can't help but wonder what long-term effect Irene will have on the state's fragile but stable economy. How long does optimism last in the face of disaster?
We were lucky at our house. The storm didn't do much damage. We can live without phones for a while.
Elsewhere, people are picking up, cleaning out, digging, repairing roads, helping their neighbors and, this being Vermont, doing a little political organizing.
A few people appear to be looting, but that's to be expected. Criminals happen just the way hurricanes and good neighbors happen.
Even in my blessed state of Vermont.
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.
Longtime AR Correspondent Joyce Marcel has been a Vermont journalist and columnist for over 20 years. More of her work appears on her Web site, joycemarcel.com.