Tropical Storm Irene
12:00 am
Thu September 1, 2011

For Upper Valley Flood Victims, a Long Road Ahead

In White River Junction, a melange of fascinating businesses face challenges recovering from Irene...but not nearly so great as the obstacles facing residents of West Hartford, many of whom lost their homes to the raging White River.

Just over the border from New Hampshire in Vermont, the Upper Valley town of Hartford was ravaged by flash floods from Hurricane Irene.

Business owners and residents in the villages of White River Junction and West Hartford who have lost everything are doing what they can to dig out from the mud and debris.

But the long journey to rebuild their lives is just beginning.

Sound: (footsteps, banging)

“It used to be you walked in, this was a hallway, you would walk into here and this was our space. We were cranking, we were feeding, we had all the local Co-ops…” Mel Hall has stepped through an inch of mud to show off what was, until early Monday morning, the White River Junction headquarters of Mel’s Gourmet World Cuisine.

Now it’s a wet, filthy, empty shell.

For three days, Mel and his wife, Demaris, and their employees have been sorting through mud-covered debris  -- thousands of dollars of pots, pans, refrigeration units, and expensive ingredients. The Hall’s company provides African-style meals to colleges and hospitals – and they were expanding to prepare for their busiest season in two decades. “We completely gutted and redid this entire space in four weeks," Hall says. "And we watched the storm waters roll in Sunday night and rip it out.”

Their low-slung cement building, which they share with other businesses, sits near the bank of the White River. And on Sunday night, that river rose like no one has seen it rise in about 85 years.

It swamped the parking lot of the renovated firehouse next door, which houses The Main Street Museum and the library of White River Junction’s quirkiest educational institution, the Center for Cartoon Studies.

It wiped out a Zen Center and a textile company on the firehouse’s ground floor.

The ferocious river flooded the museum’s storage space, covering hundreds of precious objects with a sticky, gluey layer of silt.

And it poured more than six feet of water into the Hall’s brand new kitchen and tossed enormous commercial refrigerators around like Lego blocks.

People in this close-knit community know the Halls and call them resilient.

But their future, like the future of many here, is uncertain. Says Hall,  “Our source of income is completely cut off….We gotta get cooking again.”

They need a new kitchen and a quick disaster loan. And they don’t know when they’ll get either.

Next door to the Halls, Amy Fortier has spent the day trying to rescue costumes from the flooded storage rooms of the North Country Community Theatre. Every passing day threatens mildew and mold.

We step gingerly through two inches of filthy water, past a piano on its back, never to be played again.

It’s hard to make out the soaking costumes hanging in row after row.

"Right in front of us is a pile of furs that had been donated," Fortier says. "It’s vintage clothing, it’s things we’ve made, you can see hats….it’s just covered in mud. We don’t know how to come back from this. I don’t know if you can.”

Next door, a slight man in jeans and a button-down shirt picks through debris by the museum’s front door. He grabs a purple videotape – it’s a Barney movie – and a vintage beer can.

Both, it turns out, are museum artifacts – along with an eclectic collection that’s virtually indescribable.

"“We have a category of artifacts from the 1927 flood, the 2011 flood, and yet another category of artifacts that survived both," the man says.

Elaine Grant: "You must be….?

"I’m David Fairbanks Ford, director of the Main Street Museum.”

Fairbanks Ford describes the museum he cofounded almost two decades ago as a cabinet of curiosities. He shows off a typical exhibit. “Ah, it’s just a deer with a birthday hat on his head, and he’s wearing the silver fox stole of Elizabeth Taylor, which is part of her fur collection that she was dispersing before she died, so we had a special Liz Taylor display a few years ago after her death.”

Today, a handful of volunteers – many brand new students who’ve arrived this week to attend the Center for Cartoon Studies –wash mud off of objects and clean up the ravaged parking lot.

Fairbanks Ford was as alarmed as anyone when, as he says, a full-fledged river roared through the back of the building. He helped p rescue the Schulz Library – yes, named for the Peanuts cartoonist – next door to the museum.

Volunteers frantically pulled out about 8,000 books, watching in fear as the flood waters rose and other dangers appeared. Fairbanks Ford says, “Because of all the propane tanks coming down the river, this whole neighborhood reeked of propane, reeked of propane, it was very dangerous.”

But the museum and the library are dry and the 1893 firehouse in which they live still stands.

Five miles down Route 14, the scene in the village of West Hartford makes White River Junction pale in comparison.

Route 14 curves along the White River. Houses and small businesses – the library, the general store, an auto repair shop – sit across from the river.

Clearly it was pastoral once.

But on Sunday night, in just a few hours, the river crossed the road, destroyed the Patriot Bridge – and tore the entire front off of one house.

Now the road is hijacked by police cars, fire engines, excavators and mammoth trucks carting fill. Guard rails are gone; the end of the bridge has twisted and wires hang in a tangle, useless.

“The whole lot was just full of cars, tipped over, twisted around, tires, and barrels, and mud. Mud probably two feet deep in some places. Everything is mud, the inside of my shop is mud, you can see…we’re sweeping out six inches of mud.” Bruce Conrad, wearing a blue workman’s coverall, walks slowly across what used to be his lawn.

For days, he’s been trying to salvage the auto repair shop he’s run here since 1973. “We’ll reopen," he says. "But it’s gonna take a long time. We’ve lost everything, machine, tools, side of the shop blown out, etc. “

Like many here, though, he compares himself to others. “There’s people worse than me. People have lost their homes, we didn’t lose our home.”

Lisa Johnson and Bert Merton did.

They were trapped here.

They saved their dogs but watched their house and its contents float down the river.

The couple walks tiredly up to a tent set up on the lawn of the public library, which has a huge sinkhole surrounding it.

Hunter Rieseberg: “Do you need food, water? Merton: No, we have shelter, we're just trying to clean up....

Hartford town manager Hunter Rieseberg has been here for three days, directing construction crews and doing what he can to help people salvage their lives. "If you need manpower, we have a crew….”

Merton and Rieseberg continue talking about logistics, dump trucks, dust masks.

But Lisa Merton stands mostly silent next to her partner, her green eyes welling up with tears. She asks one question: when will FEMA arrive?

“We have been waiting for FEMA," Rieseberg says. "The peak of this event was from Sunday night into Monday morning and we’ve had several indications that FEMA was en route.”

But Rieseberg  -- and everyone else – was still waiting. He’s worried about people – especially older folks – who didn’t have much money to begin with. "FEMA will show up at some point and there may be some relief, but there’s gonna be a gap and the gap’s gonna be enormous for some of these people. How do you do that? I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Across the way, an older couple mills around near the bridge.

The area had been a memorial garden, built by volunteers to honor three fallen soldiers. "All the relatives and family and friends came out and have tended that garden for the last couple of years," says Rieseberg.

One of the honored soldiers was this couple’s son.

Clearly, it is the first time they have seen the ruined garden. The mother looks up at Rieseberg, crying.

All that is left is the memorial plaque.

The river has taken everything else.

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