GRANVILLE / HANCOCK — As inhabitants of the White River Valley tried to pull their lives together after floods from Tropical Storm Irene last week tore up roads, knocked out power and isolated residents, Vermonters who live on the western side of the Green Mountains donated supplies and went in person in large numbers to help out.
Those offering support included local firefighters, college students and human service organizations.
And Gov. Peter Shumlin himself stopped at the Granville Town Hall and Hancock firehouse on Wednesday to highlight state and federal resources flood victims could tap. He also gave a pep talk to his fellow Vermonters, many of whom showed the emotional strain they have experienced since the Aug. 28 floods.
“I’ve seen more acts of courage and kindness in the past week than any person would normally expect to see in a lifetime,” Shumlin said during a visit to Hancock Wednesday afternoon. “I’m so proud of all of you … The fact that we are where we are right now is amazing and a real testament to hard work that is being done by Vermonters helping each other all across the state ... We’ve made incredible progress in just a few days.”
Shumlin isn’t alone in reaching out. More than 60 members of the Addison County Firefighters Association (ACFA) and scores of Middlebury College student athletes spent the better part of Saturday working in the towns of Hancock and Rochester in a flood relief effort the firefighters called ACFA Operation Valley.
For many, the day started in the early hours of the morning, when at 5:30 a.m. they gathered at the bottom of Sand Hill in East Middlebury in a convoy of about 20 vehicles to prepare for the trip over the mountain to assist those folks whose homes and belongings were destroyed by the major storm.
“In speaking with many of our volunteers, although covered with dirt and dried mud, the experience was well worth the effort,” wrote Mark Bouvier, retired chief of the Bristol Fire Department, in an email to ACFA members. “I heard stories of homeowners who were in tears to think we would be willing to give up a day on Labor Day weekend to do this work. This is a tribute to the kind of individuals in this association that I have come to know and it does not surprise me a bit that you were willing to do this for another community.”
Bouvier also praised the hard work by the student volunteers and coaches from the various Middlebury College athletic teams and noted the organizing efforts of Tiffany Sargent, director at the college for civic engagement. He said the students and college did more than talk, they acted with more than “100 student athletes pitching in with this effort in both towns. Tiffany’s coordination with our operations was seamless, as we were able to provide ample opportunities for these young athletes to work, but it also provided some relief for our folks who had plenty of projects and assignments to work on.”
Middlebury’s football, volleyball and field hockey teams were represented.
Among the projects were recovering personal possessions from collapsed houses and then clearing the wreckage, moving downed trees and other debris from the Rochester public works garage and a town park, removing mud from flooded basements, and cleaning crawlspaces under buildings that had been flooded with dirty water.
“I have no doubt the fine folks in the communities of Hancock, Rochester, Stockbridge and Pittsfield are most appreciative of our collective efforts,” Bouvier wrote, “and you should be as well. Each of you, both ACFA and Middlebury College, did an outstanding job.”
DELIVERY OF SUPPLIES
But locals didn’t just give their personal sweat to help their neighbors in the valley, they also collected and delivered food and supplies.
The Middlebury-based social service agency Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, or HOPE, ferried several truckloads of food and other necessities over the mountain this past weekend. Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, said she received an email from Rep. Willem Jewett of Ripton, who represents Hancock, saying people in the valley needed help.
“They are technically in our service area, but they usually go to Rochester for this kind of thing,” Montross said. “But (with Route 100 damaged) that wasn’t an option.”
Montross and some HOPE volunteers — including Peter LaFlame, Dee Lamoureux and Yolanda Prigo — purchased food from the Hannaford supermarket and raided the HOPE food shelf and loaded three pickup trucks with things like ramen noodles, juice, diapers, feminine hygiene products, fresh produce, batteries and flash lights.
“We got a case of cheese because I thought that would be good for children,” Montross said.
They paid for the items in part through funds from the Anne Ginevan Fund at the United Way of Addison County and other direct donations.
“Dee Lamoureux’s parents are farmers and they brought in groceries,” Montross noted. “They are right by the river and they are going to lose their corn.”
The HOPE volunteers took the three truckloads of supplies to the Granville town offices and Hancock firehouse on Friday.
“We first went to Granville because they had the biggest need,” Montross said. “People unloaded the trucks; they looked like they were just in a daze, but the woman in charge (Cheryl Werner) was really full of energy.”
LaFlame made a second trip on Saturday after the Middlebury Natural Food Co-op donated $200 worth of supplies. In addition to the first two stops, he also dropped off milk at the Park House in Rochester in response to a specific request.
Montross said HOPE may see more people from Hancock and Granville taking advantage of its services now that they have seen the organization in action.
The one problem is that the relief effort depleted the already thin stocks of food HOPE had on reserve.
“Now we have to replenish the food shelf,” she said.
But replenishing the food shelf in Middlebury is a small concern compared to the reality that is setting in among those communities most directly affected by the storm’s flooding, as the governor said to community members during his Wednesday visits to Granville, Hancock and Rochester.
“One of the things I’m seeing now,” Shumlin said, “is that the adrenaline rush (after the storm) has worn off, the reality of the losses people have suffered are setting in, and there are signs of depression among some people … The Red Cross is offering assistance to people needing counseling, and I would ask you all to look out for your neighbors, and your friends and family and be sure they get help if they need it … We all know that Vermonters aren’t very good at asking for help, but let me be the first to say that Vermonters should seek this help from the Red Cross… It’s not a sign of weakness to seek counseling if you need it, it’s a sign of strength.”
Shumlin also encouraged residents up and down the Route 100 valley to be sure they apply for disaster aid assistance from the state and FEMA, and noted that other state departments like the Agency of Natural Resources were cutting through bureaucratic hurdles to get the roads rebuilt and these most severely damaged communities rebuilt as fast as possible.
“In terms of gravel extraction,” he said, as an example of the way departments were working together, “we’re flushing the red tape down the river with Hurricane Irene” and making it possible to get gravel out of nearby riverbeds quickly and efficiently.
But he also had a message about the longer-term reconstruction the state faces.
“We have an opportunity here. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve had two historic floods since I became governor this year,” he said in a reference to global climate change. “When we rebuild Vermont’s roads and bridges, we need to prepare Vermont for more violent storms; we need to make sure our roads and bridges, and our homes and communities, can handle more extreme weather … We need to view these types of storms as the new norm, not as the aberration, and build for it.”
The governor also said that while the total cost of the storm is still being compiled, he expects spending will exceed current estimates.
“There are more Vermonters who have lost their homes than we first expected and more roads and bridges that have been washed out,” he said, “and the number just keeps growing.”
For Hancock residents whose homes and lives were turned upside down by the flooding, the governor’s visit was just the tonic they needed for the moment.
“The people were glad to see the governor here, to know he cares and is reaching out to help them,” said Rose Juliano, one of two residents running Hancock’s disaster relief fund. “The fact that he was here, that we could talk to him about our concerns face-to-face