Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Waterbury Record.
The reappearance of axe murderers on Randall Street is a welcome sign of normalcy.
Tropical Storm Irene drowned this small neighborhood of century-old homes in downtown Waterbury two months ago. But not even the mighty Winooski River could stop the annual tradition of Halloween that attracts around a thousand costumed trick-or-treaters to the neighborhood. Nor could it stop the residents from returning to reclaim their lives and their homes.
That anything could feel “normal” on Randall Street today is remarkable. On the morning of Aug. 29, Randall Street was one of the saddest sights in Vermont. At 6:30 a.m., I stood in the center of flooded Main Street in Waterbury and peered out onto the lake that lapped calmly over what was Elm and Randall streets. There was no walking down the block, only swimming.
A few hours later, when the water receded, I returned with my son Jasper, with boots on and shovels in hand. Like so many neighbors, we didn’t know what we would find, only that folks were going to need help. Just how much help was daunting.
My first stop that morning after the storm was the home of Tom and Madeline Drake. Tom is the principal of Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, and Madeline is an instructional aide at Thatcher Brook Primary School; their sons Guthrie and Teagan attend Harwood Union High School, while Henry is at Crossett Brook. The Winooski River had surged a quarter-mile across the corn field behind their house, filled their basement, and kept going, finally cresting on their kitchen counter tops.
Walking inside their wrecked house, I found a coating of muddy, smelly gray river slime on everything. Couches and beds were overturned, as if I had barged in unexpectedly on a wild frat party. Up and down the street that morning, dazed homeowners and kids took stock of their losses. A thick, pungent smell of sea water, oil and gas hung in the humid summer air.
Waves of water were quickly replaced by waves of neighbors and volunteers. Thousands of people showed up to help dig out the Drake house and the rest of the neighborhood, many of whom the Drakes didn’t know. The all-volunteer army had arrived to save Randall Street, and make Vermont whole again.
Following the initial flood cleanup on Randall Street, families moved out, builders moved in, and some houses just sat quietly with little activity. Driving down the street one evening this week, I pass house after darkened house.
Suddenly, on Oct. 25, a light came on. It was the Drake’s house at 5 Randall Street. They are the first of the “floodies,” as exiled flood victims dub themselves, to return to Randall Street.
On Halloween night, Madeline shows me inside her newly renovated home while Henry and some volunteers serve candy to a 10-deep line of trick-or-treaters. A beautiful unscuffed new maple floor covers the area where I last saw buckled wide pine boards. New kitchen cabinets have been hung, and appliances were rolled into place earlier in the day. The smell of fresh paint has replaced the musty odor of flood water. The plywood kitchen countertop is proof that this is all a work in progress.
Madeline manages a pursed smile as she shows me around. She does not have the proud air of one showing off a renovated home. Instead, she expresses relief. And a little guilt.
After I compliment her about how nice her home looks, she shrugs. “Now we have to help other people get back,” she says.
“Some neighbors are struggling and crashing,” she tells me. “They’re not seeing the insurance numbers they were hoping for. It’s starting to get cold, and people know they have to button up.”
Following the flood, the Drakes were fortunate when a generous retired couple in Waterbury offered them their home while they were away for seven weeks. It was an unexpected soft landing, and just what the traumatized family of five needed.
Returning to Randall Street has been bittersweet. “The hard thing is that I’m in my house and I want to relax, but there’s so much work to do to make it a home, and not just a house,” Madeline tells me. Her words echo around the empty room that was once a cozy family gathering spot. The family’s couches and stuffed chairs, which spent a night floating in toxic flood water, were unceremoniously hoisted into Dumpters the day after the storm.
“I’m also starting to realize what we lost,” she says. The hardest thing to part with were all the keepsakes and family photos that were damaged or destroyed.
The Drakes may have returned to their house, but they haven’t yet returned to their community. Henry, 11, tells me he’s glad to be back, “but I miss not having all my friends here on the street.”
Tom Drake, dressed for Halloween in a hard hat, dust mask and a Tyvek hazmat suit – “this free costume is the only good thing I got out of Irene,” he jokes – sits outside on his front porch amid cabinets and tables that are still waiting to be moved back inside. As we are sitting outside, I catch the whiff of a skunk. Tom explains that the day they moved back in, their dog cornered a skunk in their garage, where much of their furniture was stored.
“Talk about getting kicked when you are down!” he laughs, shaking his head.
Tom says that it’s a relief to be back, but things don’t feel quite right. “Without the neighbors, this street feels like a ghost town, like the land that time forgot,” he says. “Communities are not about places or buildings. They’re about people.”
Tom is also concerned about other residents. He recounts a conversation he had with one of his neighbors earlier in the evening. “He told me, ‘I am swimming, and need someone to throw me a lifeline.’”
Tom adds, “The community effort to empty basements and living rooms was free. But it costs money to build floors and walls.”
A tradition continues, with a little help
Eric Smith stands outside his gutted Randall Street home and surveys the line of kids who have formed to get candy. Volunteers from UVM sit on his stoop and are handing out goodies. The UVM students raised $400 to buy candy for the occasion, and arrived earlier in the week to help decorate the street, including distributing carved pumpkins that were donated by the Williston haunted forest.
UVM student Hillary Laggis, dressed as a snow leopard, explains that she was part of a class called Rebuilding Vermont. “I heard that this was the ‘it’ place to be on Halloween,” the enthusiastic college junior tells me. So she and her classmates made it their mission to maintain this age-old Waterbury tradition on Randall Street. Her classmates, dressed in costumes, are gathered around and helping to hand out candy.
Up and down Randall Street, other volunteers are helping to carry the load of serving treats to local kids. One homeowner told me how she had been “reverse trick or treated” – instead of giving candy, a reveler handed her a large bag of sweets to distribute.
“This is one of the longest traditions in Waterbury. There was no way we were not going to have it continue,” Smith tells me.
Like most of his neighbors, Smith is still out of his home. He hopes to move back by Thanksgiving. “This whole process of the flood has been a big demonstration of how close-knit the community is.” It’s a sentiment that I hear from one end of Randall Street to the other.
Smith has been humbled by the volunteer outpouring. “I had to learn not to say no to offers of help, and just to say thank you.”
The father of one trick-or-treater leans over to Smith. “Thanks for doing this. I know it hasn’t been easy these last few months.”
I ask Smith, a longtime community volunteer and Rotary Club member, how he thinks Randall Street will come through the flood. He pauses then mentions the Indian god, Shiva. “He’s the god of death and destruction, but also rebirth and new growth. Like a phoenix. I’m hopeful that’s what it will be here. The flood will re-energize the spirit of Randall Street.”
As the evening wears on, the pint-sized ghosts and superheroes give way to revelers from middle school and high school. Back at the Drakes, Tom greets his students by first name. They laugh as they see their principal dressed in costume.
As the trick-or-treaters retreat, darkness again consumes the flooded neighborhood. Inside his newly repaired house, Tom reflects, “I hope people don’t forget Randall Street.” His dust mask – so recently a necessity, now just a costume – still hangs from his neck. “We are going to need help for a long time. And the longer it takes people to return, the harder it’s gonna be for them.”
For two months, the Drakes have been consumed by the exhausting work of getting their lives back together. Madeline reflects on the unexpected help she’s had on the long, hard road back home.
“My mom always told me that there were angels, and to look for them,” she says as we stand around her plywood kitchen counter in her bare first floor. “They’re in all sorts of places. When Irene came to town, there were angels all around me. Angels who came to my house with me that morning just to see the mud. Then angels who came and took out our furniture, and angels who whisked away my photos, which was the most important thing to me to save them.”
She pauses, her voice cracking with emotion. “Then there were these food angels who fed and nursed and housed us. Angels who didn’t even know me. Angels who worked on my house, brought us pumpkins, brought us candy, and gave us hope.”
A soft smile breaks the stream of tears running down her cheeks. “It’s just so true that if you’re open, angels come in.”