Update at 12:56 a.m. + videos: Vermont devastated by “catastrophic” floods in wake of Hurricane Irene

UPDATE 12:55 p.m.
The Northfield Falls bridge is out.
The new Middlesex bridge near the VTrans building on Rte.2 is out.

UPDATE 9:26 a.m.

Julia Carlisle of Woodstockearlybird.com reports that Woodstock Inn was flooded out…and we’ll be following the 200 propane tanks from West Woodstock (Dead River Fuels) that are stuck in Quechee Gorge. Water is still out here and Route 4 to Killington/Rutland closed.

www.woodstockearlybird.com

UPDATED 9:10 A.M.
Fire chief Bob Gowans said that the Marshfield Dam waters were not released last night as the flood was receding on its own. There was no major flooding in Montpelier. The State and Main street parking lot was flooded. Half a dozen businesses had water fill basements.

UPDATED 9 a.m.
Shumlin and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are touring the flood damage by helicopter.

UPDATED 8:20 a.m.
Gov. Peter Shumlin told Vermont Public Radio that “we’re going to be digging out for a long time.”

“Irene whacked us really hard.”

The governor said Vermont was extremely well prepared, but “everything we anticipated happened, and we were on the run.”

The state hasn’t seen a flood like this in 75 years, Shumlin said.

Shumlin warned Vermonters to stay put. Infrastructure has eroded and roads have been destabilized. Officials need time to make sure buildings and roads are safe.

VPR reported that 280 people were in shelters Sunday night.

UPDATED 8:14 a.m.

Josh Larkin, our photographer, is out and about in central Vermont. He says the roads in Montpelier are largely cleared, with the exception of Route 2 and Bailey Avenue.

In Waterbury, Route 2, near Rowe Field, has been blocked off with 18 inches of water. There is also an oil spill in the water.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7 a.m.

It wasn’t the wind, but the water that hit Vermont hardest as Hurricane Irene passed through on Sunday, pummeling dozens of towns.

The cyclone, which had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Vermont, had a devastating impact on communities throughout the state.

The damage was so severe and widespread that it led the national media coverage of the storm Sunday evening.

Early in the afternoon, municipalities in the southern area of the state were inundated with water from a mercilessly steady rainfall. Water swept through the downtowns of Brattleboro, Grafton, Quechee, Londonderry, Ludlow, Bennington, Jamaica, Wilmington and Dover with alarming speed. In the evening, towns in central Vermont – namely Waterbury, East Middlebury and the Warren/Waitsfield area — and the Northeast Kingdom – the Lowell/Westfield line — were also hit with flash flooding.

Gov. Peter Shumlin told the New York Times that the flooding in Windham and Bennington Counties was “catastrophic.”

At Sunday night, one fatality had been reported by state officials: A 21-year old woman was swept down the Deerfield River in Wilmington and was presumed dead. Several officials said they would be shocked, given the widespread nature of the disaster, if there aren’t more deaths as a result of Irene.

At Weston’s Mobile Home Park in Berlin, a woman who was 7 months pregnant was put in a rescue boat with two firefighters who were trying to help her get to safety. The boat tipped over, and officials don’t know the fate of the passengers.

By early Sunday afternoon the state had closed 40 roads closed; by evening about 60 were out of commission. CNN reported that Wilmington is “cut off.” AP Radio News via WDEV reported that 100 mobile homes were under water and propane tanks were bobbing in the Deerfield River.

Monday morning, Vermont Emergency Management reported that 263 roads had been impacted and “several bridges were destroyed by the flood waters.”

See the map of statewide road damage.

The Agency of Transportation has asked Vermonters to report damaged roads on its website http://www.511vt.com/.

Facebook users reported that three historic covered bridges had been swept away in Lower Bartonsville, Grafton and Quechee. Buildings became unmoored from their foundations in some of the hardest hit areas. One resident reported that four houses were destroyed in Jamaica. The Brandon House of Pizza became unhinged from its foundation and landed on top of a nearby barbershop. Simon Pearce restaurant and glass blowing studio was flooded, according to several readers. About 80 residents of two residential care facilities in Rutland, the St. Joseph Kervick Residence and the Loretto Home, were evacuated to the Rutland Regional Medical Center.

Nine Red Cross shelters were set up around the state and more than two dozen towns had opened their own shelters, according to Emergency Management.

Vermont Emergency Management and Vermont State Police officials issued frequent updates on road conditions and shelters throughout the day, but by Sunday evening, press releases were no longer forthcoming and the phone lines were busy. It turns out even the rescuers had to be rescued. The Vermont State Hospital complex was surrounded by water. State officials were evacuated from the newly renovated Public Safety Building in Waterbury (it just opened on Friday) when floodwaters rushed through the town, according to Jeb Spaulding, Secretary of the Agency of Administration. A new temporary headquarters was set up at Lakeside Avenue in Burlington where the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been ensconced since the May flash flooding and Lake Champlain hit a historic high water mark.

Barre was spared the worst of the floods this time. In May, the city was devastated by a flash flood on Memorial Day weekend. Lauzon said Irene’s impact was minimal, and rumors that the Times Argus, sustained more damage are unfounded.

By nightfall, all eyes were on Montpelier, as the Winooski River gathered water from tributary streams and was expected to crest at between 18 feet and 20 feet at about 2 a.m. In May, the high point was 17.5 feet. As of midnight, the city reported that the river reached a high point of 19.05 feet.

Bill Fraser, Montpelier City Manager, said: “The hard part for us is, we don’t know what a 20 foot level looks like. In 1992, the (ice) blockage rerouted the river through downtown. … We don’t know how high it will be. People are asking what we’ll do tomorrow. It depends on how bad it gets.”

Green Mountain Power announced yesterday evening that it might have to release water from the Marshfield Dam into the Winooski in order to prevent a collapse of the earthen structure. Dotty Schnure, communications director for the utility, said 350 homes downstream of the dam in Marshfield, Montpelier and East Montpelier, Plainfield and Groton were evacuated. Schnure said that by midnight the increased rate of the water had slowed somewhat and she was “optimistic we don’t have to open it up.” A dam failure would have caused more damage than the release of water she said.

Montpelier officials were bracing for the additional water, though they and GMP officials hoped that if a release occurred it could be delayed until after the Winooski crested. Many downtown merchants in the capital had moved goods from basement storage to prevent more losses.

Fraser said residents on low-lying streets – Elm, Langdon and Taylor – were voluntarily evacuated on Sunday night to a regional shelter at the Barre Auditorium. This morning much of the water on the streets had dissipated.

The number of power outages was lower than expected. Late last night, about 27,619 CVPS customers didn’t have electricity; Green Mountain Power had 5,274 outages and Vermont Electric Co-op had 5,274 customers without power. The Waterbury substation flooded, according to Schnure.

Spaulding said the data center for the Agency of Human Services, which has an annual budget of more than $1 billion and handles information for five departments, flooded out. Spaulding anticipates a “prolonged outage.”

State offices will be closed today, and the first day of school was cancelled for more than 140 school districts.

Castleton State College and Lyndon State College are closed.

The landmark Flood of 1927 destroyed 1,258 bridges, ruined 187 houses and laid claim to 55 lives, according to a video from the Vermont Historical Society.

Anne Galloway

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