BRANDON — The Brandon Congregational Church bells were ringing at 5 p.m. last Friday as Route 7 through downtown Brandon was re-opened to traffic a mere 122 hours after floodwaters scourged the road.
The fresh asphalt was still sticky and cooling as town residents walked gingerly down the sidewalks, marveling at the smooth, black expanse where just days before lay large, craggy holes and chunks of pavement in piles. Bicyclists gleefully rolled downhill past the town office, fresh dirt on the new shoulder along damaged Green Park. Over and over, the refrain was heard, “I just can’t believe how fast they did this.”
When Tropical Storm Irene dropped seven inches of rain in the Brandon area on Aug. 28, it sent the Neshobe River crashing over its banks through the center of town. It was a familiar route, down past West Seminary Street and the Briggs Carriage Building. An unnamed hurricane in 1938 caused the river to flood Brandon in identical fashion, and no one had seen that much water in town since.
Markowski Excavating of Florence had had a crew and excavating equipment on Maple Street in Brandon since July, working on a new water main project for the fire district, and that was the bright side of the epic flood for Brandon.
Owner Dave Markowski let town officials know early on after the flood that he was there for them, whatever they needed, and he did not disappoint.
Once the Brandon House of Pizza building was moved off the river last Thursday afternoon, Markowski workers got busy ripping up the crumbled pavement on Route 7 from Sully’s Restaurant to the Episcopal Church. They seemed to work around the clock, and within 24 hours, Route 7 in downtown Brandon had two lanes of fresh pavement.
“This is what we do,” Markowski said when asked about the quick turnaround. “And even if we weren’t already in town (on Maple Street) we’d be here. The most important thing is to get Route 7 open. This is the most important road on this side of the state and it needed to be open.”
Like so many area legislators, Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, had a vested interest in seeing the road re-opened, as trucks from Carter Trucking carrying calcium carbonate from the Omya quarry in Middlebury to the plant in Florence had been grounded since the flood. That led to a call to Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who visited Brandon on Wednesday, Aug. 31, at the urging of Shaw, Rutland County Sen. Peg Flory and Brandon Rep. Joe Acinapura, all Republicans. Scott was instrumental in getting a 200-foot crane to Brandon the next day to move the Brandon House of Pizza building.
“The assurances that I’ve gotten is he’s here, he’s on the ground looking at the damage,” Shaw said Wednesday. “He understands the importance to the people in this area that we get those Omya trucks moving again. It’s important to our economy.”
“He’s a nice guy, he runs a construction firm, and he likes us,” said Brandon selectboard chair Richard Baker said of Scott. “And, even if he didn’t, he knows this road has to be open to do the reconstruction of the mountain.”
Many east-west routes over the Green Mountains were impassable last week due to washed out roads and bridges, and Route 7 is the only direct north-south route on the western side of the state. Most trucks carrying construction supplies and aid from the north must come down Route 7 to access the stricken southern part of the state.
Brandon Public Works Superintendent Brian Sanderson has had a baptism by fire, having only been on the job just since June. Tired but energized, as he looked at the new road on Friday, Sanderson was thrilled.
“I knew we had the hard work in us, but judging by what I saw here on Sunday, this is a miracle,” he said. “Kudos to the townspeople for their patience, and kudos to Markowski for all they’ve done.”
While cost estimates come to roughly $1 million for the new and improved Route 7, Markowski said he wasn’t even thinking about billing.
“We aren’t concerned about who’s paying for what,” he said. “The road’s open, that’s the important thing.”
Another hurdle to getting Route 7 open was Bridge 114. The downtown bridge over the Neshobe River has been rated “poor” in at least the last two inspections, and is slated for rehabilitation in the next 18 months. Bridge inspectors from the Vermont Agency of Transportation had to inspect and sign off on the safety of the bridge before work could begin to repair the road over it. That happened on Wednesday, Aug. 31.
Sanderson watched the Markowski crews put the finishing touches on the pavement just before the road re-opened on Friday and was finally going off the clock for a while. He couldn’t say enough about the team effort that went into getting Route 7 open, from his own highway crew to Sheri Sullivan of Sheri’s Diner, who provided drinks and sandwiches for all of the workers, to Chef Robert Barral of Café Provence, who gave away fresh pastries.
“The true sense of what a community is are the citizens, the employees and the volunteers,” he said. “I’m proud to say I’m part of this community.”