The vagaries of the cruel devastation left behind by the tropical storm known as Irene are evident everywhere in the hard-hit areas of Quechee, Woodstock and Hartford.
The testament to the fierce power of water is written in acres of slick mud, stones and gravel, massive slabs of broken asphalt, scattered propane tanks, tree trunks tossed about like salad ingredients and gullies gouged out by a giant riverine backhoe.
Three days distant from its onslaught north through Vermont, the Route 4 corridor between Interstate 89 and West Woodstock and Route 14 between Sharon and White River Junction in east central Vermont are filled with the thrum of heavy equipment. A steady stream of big dump trucks winds along the roads, the fetid stench of muck and rotting food and debris evident as a massive repair and restoration effort is under way.
Throughout this region — just one small slice of what much of central and southern Vermont is experiencing — lies a state oddly divided, between those who by stint of elevation, a bend in the river or some random chance of luck escaped disaster, and their neighbors, whose homes, businesses and inns received the brunt of rivers and brooks run amuck.
The list of victims in the Woodstock area includes many iconic names in the Vermont pantheon.
* The elegant Woodstock Inn, its 142 rooms a key economic engine in this resort town and the employer of some 280 people. Normally bustling, it’s closed and dark and the flooded downstairs is dank evidence of the waters that came calling.
* The red Taftsville Covered Bridge over the Ottauquechee River, cordoned off by yellow police tape, its roof wavy and foundations uncertain, a big green propane tank sitting by one buttress in the river. Adjacent River Road became just that, its surface scoured away into something resembling a rocky stream bed.
* The handsome little village of Quechee, home to Simon Pearce’s famed restaurant, where the covered bridge now leads nowhere, the road at one end having vanished into the Ottauquechee River, while the river rampaged through the restaurant’s now soggy, mud-covered basement.
* The famed Woodstock green, sporting a phalanx of porta-potties because the village has not had water since Sunday, and half the town also remains without electricity.
* Gillingham’s, one of Vermont’s best-known country stores, marking its 125th year in the dark as it waits for power to return in an unusually quiet downtown.
* The Vermont Standard newspaper office, whose facade in West Woodstock lists out from the rest of the building and whose devastated interior is painted in thick, wet mud. The ravaged tools of the news trade — copiers, file cabinets, chairs, computers and desks — sit forlornly outside in a mud-coated pile.
Irene’s fickle floodwaters played no favorites, hitting those less well-known, too. Adam and Alexandra La-Noue Adler will tell you that.
For eight years they’ve owned the 8-room Parker House B&B in Quechee Village, its deck overlooking the Ottauquechee River next to Simon Pearce. Sunday afternoon, the river rose and kept rising until it came in downstairs, ruining $30,000 worth of perishables and the restaurant coolers. And it kept on coming.
“I saw my freezer float by my eyes,” said Adam Adler, who is British, as he smoked a cigarette and stared out from his second-floor wraparound porch. “I saw this huge Dumpster that Simon Pearce and I share floating right down the river. It’s half the size of this porch,” he said, still amazed at how it was carried off.
Late Sunday afternoon, the police came and told him they expected the water to keep coming up and he better evacuate.
Unshaven and shaken, he looked out at the chaos behind his inn, a vista of smelly refuse, soggy baguettes, broken machinery and furniture. “You just plod on,” he said.
“The emotional damage is unbelievable.”
The river not only divided those with damage from those without but divided Quechee itself.
His wife Alexandra La-Noue Adler choked up talking about how the covered bridge washout means they have to drive miles to get to their house, which is just across the river from the inn. She was the last person to cross the bridge before it went out. Now her two children can no longer wander down through the village to visit them at work.
“We’re all just devastated,” she said. “The emotional damage is unbelievable.”
It hasn’t been helped by insurance company hassles. She explained that their insurance is saying the damage was not caused by a hurricane, which is covered, but by a flood, which is not. That semantic difference may mean further disaster for many businesses.
“This insurance issue is huge,” she said, as they struggle to reopen for a full house in fall and cope with the losses.
At Simon Pearce, divided worlds were eerily on display, Upstairs, the restaurant was unscathed and elegantly set for patrons, with shiny glasses and silverware all neatly arranged on the tables in the darkened space, which was originally opened some 30 years ago. Below, Chris Breen was slogging through muck, bringing out cases of $100 and $200 bottles of fancy wine stored in the basement, slimed but salvageable — one of the few things that survived.
He said he was working in the basement pumping out water when the river topped sandbags piled two feet high and quickly poured in, ruining kitchen, electrical and heating equipment and glassmaking gear. He escaped in a hurry, fighting water that was already “belly-button high.”
Pearce stood nearby, meeting with a structural engineer, and would not hazard a guess as to when he could reopen. Most of his famed glassware and pottery is made at a different site and was not affected, his website said.
The river turned parts of the lower “Lakeland” course into a vast sand and mud trap.”
Nearby, the river divided Quechee’s two well-known 18-hole golf courses. A key bridge across the river washed out, stranding all the course maintenance equipment far from the “Highland” course, part of which at least will soon be reopened, employees said.
The river turned parts of the lower “Lakeland” course into a vast sand and mud trap, covering the fairways with a deep silt blanket and tearing it up so badly that it will remain closed for the rest of the year, employees said.
At the base of the golf course bridge, the river carved a new 10-foot deep water and debris-filled bunker that few golfers would want to play. Like giant dark pancakes, slabs of asphalt were littered around the course, as greens crews wielded chainsaws and ran backhoes instead of golf carts.
Oblivious to the disaster around them, and the slight stink of mud, families enjoyed the swimming pool at the clubhouse overlooking the course and ate outside on the deck.
In Woodstock, townspeople crowded into the steamy elementary school gym for a 5 p.m. community meeting Wednesday to hear when water and power might be restored (possibly later this week, according to reports.)
But in the streets, many were abuzz with the juicy rumor du jour, which was that the manager of the Woodstock Inn had the unenviable task of telling four brides that the inn could not do their weddings, booked as long as a year ago.
The impacts on businesses were front and center on the minds of many.
“See this parking lot. It never looks like this,” said Patty Button, who owns The Snack Bar at the Quechee Gorge on Route 4. Just 10 cars filled a lot designed to hold six times that many.
“The whole state is not in devastation. They need to put that out in the media,” she said.
Button replayed an indelible image the storm left in her mind Sunday: dozens of propane tanks floating through the Quechee Gorge, hissing and bobbing up and down and banging into the rocks, accompanied by trees and every form of debris.
At Gillingham’s in Woodstock, store manager Mike Sands Wednesday afternoon joked about the “shop-in-the-dark” experience as a few employees stood under an awning at the store entrance. Faced with an extended outage since their power comes from across the Ottauquechee, Gillingham donated all its produce and frozen goods to the food shelf, he said.
At this normally busy time of year, his losses are “substantial,” he said. The store is using a generator to run its computers for the few customers who come around to buy something.
Woodstock, too, was divided, as some lucky stores had power, due to the vagaries of the CVPS line system. The lights were on but business was slow at Shiretown Bookstore, noted Ron Miller, who called Woodstock “kind of deserted.”
In West Woodstock, the Ottauquechee was particularly vicious, ripping a new channel in front of The Cottage, a gaily painted snack bar that was left standing but crumpled and listing with a wrapping of trees around posts that held up two side porches. A sign on the building said “We will rebuild,” and in front, in a huge ditch, another read: “Clean fill wanted.”
Next door at the badly damaged Dead River propane, district manager Michael Schmell said many of those propane tanks bobbing down through Quechee Gorge were his. Around 150 were stacked in a secure fenced-in facility that the river swept away on Sunday.
A granite plaque commemorates the library’s rebuilding after the 1927 flood, thanks to a contribution from its namesake town of Hartford, Conn.”
He’s located at least 90 and is retrieving them, he said.
Far from the Route 4 resort towns, where Route 14 closely follows along the normally placid and broad White River, the scene reveals the same hit-or-miss impacts: In some stretches, homes are unscathed, verdant fields shine in the sun and life seems normal. Then come stretches of highway with crumpled guardrails, shoulders that drop away toward the river and piles of dusty mud hinting at the silt the river left behind.
The tiny hamlet of West Hartford north of White River Junction was absolutely hammered as the river jumped its banks and the road to run through the homes and businesses on the other side.
Rep. Kevin Christie, D-White River Junction, stood by the road with police surveying the damage and talking with people as construction crews rebuilt the approach to a bridge over the White.
“This is, like, almost unfathomable,” he said. “It’s like a war zone,” agreed Hartford selectman Ken Parker. He pointed out the massive steps to the West Hartford Library, which had been swept away like pebbles, though they weigh 4,000 to 6,000 pounds.
Around the village homeowners have emptied out their belongings in front in soggy piles and the local store sits in a wasteland of mud and gravel. A few miles north, where Route 14 winds under a railroad trestle, a wide debris pile of wood, insulation, furniture and appliances marks what remains of a home that was swept off its foundation and wedged under the trestle, blocking the road.
A shell-shocked Christy Hazen, president of the friends of the West Hartford library, said they rescued perhaps 3,500 of the 10,000 books inside but lost 500 new ones recently obtained with a grant. The river came up so fast to cross the road Sunday they barely had time to save anything, she said.
“It was moving, it was churning,” she said.
Now the small white building rises starkly alone out of a big gully surrounded by swaths of gravel. Next door a pretty white house rests on cribbing, its front exposed and foundation washed downriver, and behind it buildings are buckled and damaged.
Inside, Hazen showed a visitor the aftermath, wondering if the building and books are salvageable, and noting the irony of the situation. Out front, she pointed to a granite plaque torn off the building and lying undamaged on the ground.
It commemorates the library’s rebuilding after the 1927 flood, thanks to a contribution from its namesake town of Hartford, Conn.
“The original library went down the river,” she said.