Editor’s note: VTDigger.org has received complaints about this story from residents of Gaysville and Stockbridge who say they tried to help the Smiths after Tropical Storm Irene (see comments below). This article was an attempt to tell the story of the Smiths’ experience of the storm and the aftermath as they perceived it. The Long-Term Recovery Committee gave us the Smiths’ names. Readers may tell their side of the story in comments or in an op-ed addressed to [email protected]
Rebecca Smith can’t stand the sound of rushing water.
On Tuesday it will be a year since floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene swept away much of the campground she ran with her husband, Drew, just off Route 107 in Gaysville, a village in the town of Stockbridge.
Rebecca nearly drowned as she escaped the high water that engulfed their 22-acre property within a matter of minutes.
This week as she stood in the barren floodplain of the White River among rocks – most of them far too large to have come from the campground fire pits the floodwaters washed away – she describes how she heard the boulders knocking against each other as the river, now quietly running through a shallow bed of sand and stone, raged on that Sunday night a year ago.
She and Drew are standing near campsite R-19 — R for Riverside. It was among the most popular of the more than 100 sites at the White River Valley Campground the couple bought in 2004. Behind them, their property and sole source of income lies, for the most part, in ruin.
Their two-story house – its first floor divided between their living room and the campground store, still stocked with coolers of soda and shelves of sweets, now eerily dark aside from the midday sun coming through the windows – took on six feet of water in the basement. But the building is still standing. The satellite dish installed at M-15 for one of their “seasonals” (campers that stay for the entire summer, usually in an RV) also, miraculously made it.
Their two dogs, a Chihuahua named Churro and a Shar Pei named Stella, and their cat Whiskers (aka Big Daddy) made it. Their 11-year-old son Jaden made it. And they made it.
But it was close.
On Aug. 28, the Smiths only had about five campers – Sunday nights were usually slow after the weekend’s rush. Drew told Rebecca a hurricane was coming. High winds and rain, they heard.
Rebecca made the rounds and told the campers they should leave. They could figure out money later, but a hurricane was coming and the campground was closing up. They didn’t know those campers would be the last they would see for more than a year.
The river jumped the bank. Not unusual during a storm, Rebecca said, but as it creeped higher and higher, nearing the Riverside sites, Drew made the call: It was time to go.
They packed a bag and got their dogs into Drew’s 2004 Chevrolet Silverado “dualie” – a heavy work truck with two rear wheels on each side – and started down the driveway. They didn’t get more than a couple hundred feet, not even half way down the driveway, before the river stopped them. It picked up the truck and pushed it against a stand of trees, on top of a large rock. The big rig was immobilized.
“We started to get out, then a big wave came over the [Riverside] sites, and basically shoved the dualie with us in it against the trees,” Rebecca said.
“We got hit by a wall of water,” Drew adds.
Drew, a solid man who stands just over six feet tall and wears his hair in a ponytail, has the look of a man who makes his own way. He sold the family fishing supply shop in California and decided he wanted to run a campground. One Internet search and 3,500 miles later, he was living his dream. He and Rebecca both grew up in California – they first saw each other at a dockyard when they were still in grade school – but after eight years with their little slice of Vermont, their West Coast roots don’t show.
That Sunday afternoon, Drew got out as the water rushed around his legs. Leaning against the current, he made his way back toward the house. He took a small rope from the campground store and tied it to a post near the house and ran it toward the truck.
The water was nearing five feet deep, but Drew took the animals from the truck and returned them to the house.
Rebecca and Jaden were still in the truck.
“I told my son,” she says, “OK, we need to get into the water and, he knows how to swim, but I said, ‘Take the rope that your dad strung and wrap your arm around it like a rifle strap so you can use it to guide yourself along.’”
With his parents nearby, Jaden made his way toward the house, but another wave knocked him down and off the rope. The river began to drag him away.
“My husband reached him just in time and grabbed him by the scruff of the shirt,” Rebecca says. Drew clutched his son, and the pair worked their way back toward the house.
Rebecca left the truck hoping to pull herself back to the house, across the current of the raging White River, but the current was too strong.
“I was in the water and I started to go away from the truck, and I got, I guess, blindsided by a wave. I didn’t see it coming and I got slammed up against a cluster of trees and I was glued like this,” she presses her back firmly against the back of her chair, her head leaning back, “to the trees. The water was just rushing at me.”
As the water reached her neck, Rebecca reviewed the situation.
“I’m trying to figure out, OK, what are my options if it gets any higher? What can I do?” But she was pressed so hard against the tree that her only choice was to stay put or to let the water take her and hope.
Before she had a chance to decide, Drew came back into view and took her hand. As the picnic tables and firepits washed away along with the earth beneath, the Smith family made it back home, soaked but safe.
One year, no progress
The Smiths feel like they’ve been left behind. Forgotten. Immediately after the storm, they got financial help – $2,500 from the town of Stockbridge, where they live; $1,000 from the Chittenden Volunteer Fire Department; $2,000 from a state entity Rebecca can’t remember; $6,000 from FEMA (for the house damage), and $10,000 from their insurance company. Though they are grateful for the help, but it wasn’t enough to get the business running again. The Smiths estimate Irene caused $302,900 in damage to the property.
Because the campground is a business, they couldn’t get FEMA money. Because it isn’t a farm, they weren’t eligible for agricultural aid pouring into the state.
Some neighbors came down, but not to check on the Smiths.
“They came down here to loot the place,” Drew says. “I had to carry a sidearm for a whole week when I was down here [after Irene.]”
“Vermonters helping Vermonters” was a popular refrain for the governor and others in the wake of Irene, but the Smiths say they aren’t seen as Vermonters in the small town of Stockbridge. They’re the outsiders, they say.
“The only people that did help us were from out of state,” Drew said. Church groups from the Midwest, even friends from California helped. One local man who went by Matt came in an old beat-up pickup truck and brought a generator, food and gas for the family. They didn’t catch his last name, but the dreary tone in Rebecca’s voice turns bright when she remembers Matt, who was vital to the family’s survival after the storm.
As the months went by and the money began to run out, the couple started looking for work elsewhere. After eight years sustaining themselves from the proceeds of a campground that now resembles little more than a sandy woodland area, they were on the job market.
“We both have gone out looking for jobs, but we keep running into the same thing,” Drew says. “It’s basically any job that’s available around here is either given to the son or the daughter, the nephew the cousin, or whatever.”
They looked for odd jobs and hospital jobs – Rebecca used to be a nurse’s assistant in California – anything they could find.
“Anything,” Drew says, “we’re not proud.”
The family has lived on state aid of $356 in food stamps and $400 cash every month for the past year. It’s barely enough, they say, but they’ve been able to make it work. The money keeps food on the table, but it isn’t enough to begin covering their losses.
With state and federal money seemingly unobtainable, the family is looking elsewhere for help. Anywhere they can think of. Rebecca pulls out a book where she keeps two lists. One, a couple of pages long, lists who has helped since Irene. Money, shoveling, cleaning. Another list, much longer, shows who she’s asked.
“I’ve also written to the town, I’ve written to Senator Leahy, Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman Welch, I even wrote President Obama and got nothing back,” she said. While some staffers from politicians’ offices have returned her emails, and one of Sanders’ staffers has even come by twice, Rebecca says the communications end there.
Then she gets further down the list. With the hopes of getting some philanthropic help from big corporate players, Rebecca wrote to as many corporations as she could find. ExxonMobil, Apple, IBM, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Bank of America, Amtrak, Wal-Mart.
“It came to me one day, we hit up major league sports teams,” she says. “They have lots of money.”
Rebecca goes through page by page, the National Basketball League, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League.
Drew, sitting back in his chair, looks on. He knows how the story ends.
“We haven’t heard nothing from anybody,” he says.
While the bills keep coming and the couple keeps looking for aid, they’re working with a consultant on a loan application as well. They are hoping a bank will help, but they’ve already spent a year trying to rebuild their lives and the upcoming winter looms. The propane company shut them off earlier this summer for not paying bills. The town is charging mounting late fees on overdue property taxes.
The couple has spent their summer turning away customers because the campground has no functional bathrooms or campsites. As Rebecca flips through her book, the phone rings. After a glance at the unfamiliar number on the caller ID, Rebecca grimly says, “Watch.”
“White River Valley Campground,” she says.
“Yes it is.” Another pause.
“Um, we haven’t been open all summer due to the hurricane damage from last year,” she says. “You can go onto Facebook and look under White River Valley Campground and see about 85 pictures of what the campground looks like right now.”
“Oh yeah, we would have been open normally. Yeah,” she says.