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Crippling storm unites valley

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Posted on September 3, 2011 |
By Andrea Suozzo



mealpass0424.jpg
VERMONT NATIONAL GUARDSMEN pass boxes of food into the Hancock firehouse on Wednesday evening. On Tuesday, the National Guard began airlifting food, water and other supplies to the 13 Vermont towns that had no road access in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene. Independent photo/Andrea Suozzo

HANCOCK/GRANVILLE — “Look, headlights,” shouted someone in the crowd gathered at the Hancock Town Hall late Wednesday afternoon.

Every one of the 70-some town residents at the impromptu town meeting turned to look, craning their necks and inching out of their seats to catch a view of the bright orange Central Vermont Public Service truck rolling through town.

Seconds later, the entire crowd was on its feet, clapping and cheering for the arrival of a temporary power station that would, once installed, restore electricity to the storm-ravaged valley.

It had been three full days since the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene dropped torrential rain across the spine of the Green Mountains, launching Hancock, Granville and Rochester into a living nightmare — with all access to roads washed out, no landlines, no power and minimal cell phone service at best, residents of the White River Valley couldn’t leave, supplies couldn’t get in, and worried friends and relatives couldn’t get in touch.

“It’s been crazy,” said Rose Juliano, a member of the Hancock school board. “My kids live in (New) Jersey, and I couldn’t reach them.”

Even though Elsie Cardin lives in Hancock, it took her until Tuesday to make contact with her two daughters in Rochester and one in Granville.

“I just couldn’t reach them,” Cardin said.

Granville and Hancock residents reported lines of people and cars on the hillsides outside of town on Monday and Tuesday, waiting to stand in the isolated spots where cell phones could pick up reception off of the Killington tower.

Meanwhile, Granville residents were pooling resources to find living places for the three families who lost their houses in the floods.

“It’s been an experience,” said Cheryl Sargent, chair of the Granville selectboard. “But the community’s been very good.”

By Tuesday Route 100, which links the three towns, was passable by car; and people, provisions and road crews were able to travel between towns. By Wednesday, Route 125 from Ripton into Hancock and back roads out of Granville had opened, and road crews, CVPS trucks and rugged vehicles carrying food and supplies were able to travel into the valley. On Wednesday, both towns received their mail for the first time in four days.

John Deering, owner of JD’s Quick Stop, said at Wednesday’s town meeting that he’d been braving the rocky terrain of Route 125 all week to bring in water, ice, propane and some basic groceries from Middlebury.

“I figured someone needed to get the stuff in here,” he said.

At the meeting, Deering also announced the return of phone service to the town. Those without generators remained unable to power their phones, but Deering invited town residents to use his phone lines to reach friends and loved ones until the power came back on.

Off of Route 100 many roads still remained closed on Wednesday, and some were hiking down from their houses to reach downtown areas. Pam Gendron and her daughter Nicole Lambert had climbed over a makeshift footbridge from their Rochester homes to reach downtown, where Gendron’s husband’s truck was parked.

Lambert said people had been telling her not to walk so much, since she was three weeks out from her pregnancy due date.

“But what else can I do?” she said.

Gendron and Lambert both work for the Quintown Center for Senior Citizens, which runs the Meals on Wheels program for five towns in the valley and is based in the Hancock Town Hall.

On Wednesday afternoon Gendron, Lambert and Judy Olsen, a Hancock selectwoman and director of the Meals on Wheels organization, were clearing food out of the silent freezer at the town hall. Crimson juice from a bag of thawed cherries snaked out of the freezer and across the floor.

By Gendron’s estimate, the three had already thrown out 50 prepared meals that had thawed. They were salvaging what they could, putting cold pieces of beef into boxes to distribute among the various freezers with generators in town.

All five towns the chapter serves were hit hard by the storm. Gendron said though she knows people in all of the affected towns were making every effort to ensure the well-being of all of their neighbors, she was frustrated at not being able to reach the elderly people she usually provides meals for.

“It’s really sad,” she said. “They’re our most desperate people.”

APPEARED NORMAL

By Wednesday residents were also beginning to worry over fuel levels for generators, though that evening Sargent said she was hopeful of a propane delivery the next day.

Still, despite mounting frustrations over isolation, Hancock appeared to be just another quiet mountain town on Wednesday afternoon. Downtown buildings were relatively unscathed, teens biked up and down the road, children played on front lawns, and, very occasionally, a car drove by.

Over at the town’s new firehouse people came and went, sharing news and carrying away supplies of food and water airlifted in by the Vermont National Guard or trucked in by the Red Cross. The hum of the generator served as background to the noise of people setting out tables and clinking pots and pans, preparing for a town-wide potluck dinner that evening.

Starting Wednesday, a group of volunteers in town was keeping the firehouse kitchen open each day from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.  Every evening, after the now-regular 5 p.m. town meetings, the entire town was invited to a potluck. Dorothy Robson, one of the residents coordinating firehouse efforts, said efforts would continue until services were restored.

“We’re having these dinners partly to feed people, and partly for the sense of community,” Robson said. “People have really come together here.”

“(The past three days) have been scary, but Vermonters stick together,” said Juliano.

Regular town gatherings and a central meeting place were also serving another purpose.

“We’re trying to keep rumors to a minimum,” said Juliano.

And Wednesday’s meeting wasn’t just a place for people to offer up information about Federal Emergency Management Agency procedures, medical attention and upcoming supply deliveries; representatives from CVPS and the Vermont State Police were also there to offer up what they knew.

As Greg White, CVPS director of engineering and system operations, took the floor, he announced that the temporary substation would likely be coming through Hancock at any minute. There were 40 CVPS trucks in the valley already, he said, and he assured residents that once the substation had arrived, crews would work overnight to get Rochester back on line.

After that, White said, Hancock and Granville residents would have to make sure their fuse boxes hadn’t been damaged by the Aug. 28 floodwaters before the company could re-energize the lines to the town. But pending the discovery of further damage to town lines, White said the hope was to get power back to the towns within a matter of days.

Residents thanked White for the work CVPS was doing with a hearty round of applause and then, as if on cue, the substation rolled through town.

“God willing and the creek don’t rise — though I hate to use that term — we’ll get that substation up and running very soon,” White said.

Sure enough, Hancock postmaster Kay Bussiere said on Friday that electricity to the town had returned on Thursday night, and Granville postmaster Nancy Demers said Granville's had also returned that evening. CVPS on Friday morning reported fewer than 1,200 outages across the state, down from 72,000 just after the storm.

Lt. Bill Jenkins of the Royalton VSP barracks was also at Wednesday’s meeting to assure the crowd that despite road access issues, VSP troopers were closely monitoring improvements and responding to calls over radios in each town.

“If there’s an emergency, we will get here,” he said.

“Is there anything we can do to help?” asked one town resident.

“Behave?” suggested Jenkins, garnering laughs from the crowd. “No,” he added. “Just be patient.

“Even though things are bad, things are getting better literally by the hour. Keep that in mind.”

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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