Lost in the storm: Stockbridge couple’s livelihood swept away by Irene

Drew, left, and Rebecca Smith examine the damage to their basement in the reflection of the laundry room door, still lined with dirt at the high water mark, about six feet above the ground. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Drew, left, and Rebecca Smith examine the damage to their basement in the reflection of the laundry room door, still lined with dirt at the high-water mark, about six feet above the ground. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

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.

Rebecca Smith, overwhelmed by the sound of the White River and the memories it brings back, shields her ears among a field of rocks washed onto her property by the river during Tropical Storm Irene. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Rebecca Smith, overwhelmed by the sound of the White River and the memories it brings back, shields her ears among a field of rocks washed onto her property by the river during Tropical Storm Irene. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

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.

Rebecca Smith shows the rope her family used to make it down their driveway toward their house as the raging White River washed past them, almost five feet high. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Rebecca Smith shows the rope her family used to make it down their driveway toward their house as the raging White River washed past them, almost five feet high. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

“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.

Rebecca Smith points to the tree she was pinned against a year ago when the White River jumped its banks and came over the campground she runs with her husband. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Rebecca Smith points to the tree she was pinned against a year ago when the White River jumped its banks and came over the campground she runs with her husband. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

“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 building that serves as a home to the Smith family as well as the campground office and store. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

The building that serves as a home to the Smith family as well as the campground office and store. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

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.

Taylor Dobbs

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  • Stan Hopson

    Sad story. You’d think Bernie would a found a way to help.

  • David Goodman

    Sad story beautifully told. Well done.

  • Pam Ladds

    Dear Mr Hopson, Living inside you must be so sad and bleak, you manage to find negativity everywhere! What this family needs (and there are hundreds like them) is help from neighbors and others. Financial investment would be great too. How about taking some of that energy, turning it around and offering practical help and support to this family. Help them get the campground up and running again. Instead of taking cheap shots offer a hand.

  • Kelly Stettner

    I’m with Pam on this one!!! Pull some volunteers together and re-open the campground!!!

  • We can help the Smiths get their campground up and running by sending a donation.

  • Cheryl Pariseau

    I wonder if the Smith’s have tried peer to peer lending. There are several web sites that match people who want to invest to people who need the money. It would seem that they have a business model that has worked in the past. They just need the money to get it back up and going. Best of luck Smith family.

  • dan osgood sr

    just me thinkin out loud, what i say may piss some off, but it looks to me that the town let them have the campground on a flood plain so should help them to higher ground and help them replace there campgroud long as if they can work, the town have them work for the town to help pay for the help that the town or state is doin for them now…

  • Catherine Newman

    I truly don’t think that this story or the Smith’s accurately represent the town of Gayesville. What happened to the Smith’s is terrible….but there are so many stories like this…and in the other stories there is a major sense of strong community with neighbors helping each other like I have never witnessed before in my life! I hope that the Smith’s can recover from this, but I also think that they need to be a little more proactive in fixing their campground and stop looking for handouts. If that pisses anyone off, then I am sorry. However, I am entitled to my opinion as well.

    • Jolene Scott

      I just did the math, that’s $21,500 in funding that these people got to help to re-open their campground. Why did they not accept volunteer help and then get a cheap contractor to put in septic so they could re-open. Seems like they could have re-opened already and at least gotten some income to continue repairs as the year progressed. Just a thought.

      • Rebecca Smith

        I’d like to let Jolene Scott know that we in NO WAY got anywhere near $21,500…we got $1000 from Chittendon Fire Dept and a few hundred dollars from our guests…We did get volunteer help from a few organizations, but they were mostly a bunch of kids. We’ve been searching for contractors, but they want to charge us an hourly fee of $75 an hour and take 2 weeks to be able to give us an estimate. No one wants to donate time / materials because since we werent able to give them money, we were willing to give them FREE CAMPING in lieu of money, but they did not want that, they wanted cash money to get started. We still have that offer standing.

    • Rebecca Smith

      In response to Catherine Newman…There was no sense of community response to us…we were ignored when help was being handed out..We would fix our property if we had the money…all or equipment & tools were washed down the river and the little tools we had left were all stolen including our log splitter & our $5000 snow blower. If our property hadn’t been destroyed we would’ve been more then glad to help other people out. If our bathrooms / showers were not damaged from the river running through our property we would’ve offered our facilities to ” anyone ” who needed them, but since we’ve been here we have yet to be invited to anyone’s house for even a cup of coffee..we have invited our neighbors down for coffee, beer & wine or just to visit, yet no one has come down. We’ve worked all our lives & have literally taken care of our aging parents yet we’re the mean bad people not to be associated with and it saddens me that people will believe idel gossip and not come down & meet us and form their own opinion of us. That is really sad.

  • Ricky Fidelis

    The story of the Smiths in no way reflects the people of Stockbridge, Gaysville, or the rest of central Vermont for that matter.

    If the Smiths had simply walked to the end of their driveway – quite literally – they would have found the entire community assembled at the Gaysville bridge looking for ways to help each other out. Instead, they loaded their weapons and awaited the imagined onslaught of looters, in a fit of paranoia. While the rest of the town was out helping each other, they locked themselves in a bunker.

    The days after Irene saw neighbor helping neighbor, often putting their safety in peril to do so. The storm tore apart brick and mortar, but stitched together flesh and blood. Today, a year later, the rest of us are not merely neighbors. We are family and friends.

    • Rebecca Smith

      We did go to the top of the driveway where the town met every saturday…and every time we told them that we needed help. Had our property not been so damaged we would’ve been out there helping everyone even though we’ve been alienated by the town because they chose to believe rumors and not come down and meet us and form their own opinion of us. Had our facilities not been damaged we would’ve opened our facilities to anyone who needed them, but our main bathrooms were damaged beyond use as well as our laundry machines so we had nothing to offer anyone. We had a few people offer to help us…Tony @ the Cobblehouse was a great help…Mike Burke was another big help to us as well as Matt….but that was about it. We had people come down here & steal our tools and anything else that wasnt nailed down including but not limited to….our $1500 log splitter & our $5000 snow blower so excuse me for not being generous to people that steal from us.

  • Gin Merrill

    Hummm… I lived in Gaysville for 50 years of my life. My husband and I owned, developed and operated that campground for 14 years. I know the people there… What this story portrays is unbeleivable to me. I wonder…if this family ever offered a helping hand to others? To be a part of a community, goes both ways.

    • Hi Ginny and Denny,

      Not sure if you remeber me or not !
      Very close friends of john and Nancy Ross.
      I began camping at White river right after you built it.
      Winter skiing from a camper.Bothe my children were campimg with us 6 Mos ! I agree with your coments to get help give help. The campground was never the same after you sold. Total lack of comraderie. But, I never stopped camping there —– every year including last August.IMy family and i love the campground !! Hope fully a bank will bail them out!The american people sure bailed out the banks.

      Well that’s enough rambling
      I hope the Merrill are doing well !
      regards Jerry
      One thing !!! I am shocked the utiity companies did let them utilities –they make $$$

  • Phill Andrews

    It’s pretty apparent that the writer was more interested in weaving a sad tale of desperation and struggle than investigative reporting. The article paints a picture of the communities of Gaysville and Stockbridge as callous and exclusive. The truth could not be farther from the article presented. As well written as the piece may have been it was unbearably one sided; the editor should take serious considerations before accepting any more of this writers work. The Smith’s actions before, during and directly after the storm show exactly why they are in the situation they are. Going to sports teams for money, not helping out their community, blocking access to the national guard trying to fix the region. The Smith’s have burned most of the people in the area; even still people tried to help.

    The ugly truth is the Smith’s type of behavior DOES exist in parts of Vermont, we came together as a community after Irene and worked to rebuild, but there are people who sat around waiting for handouts and unwilling to help others. The writer missed a phenomenal chance to capture that divide, to show what happens when a community comes together and what happens when people chose to be hostile towards that community and then disaster strikes.

    • Rebecca Smith

      It is apparent that this person has not a clue to the real story. Since they were probably not affected by the hurricane and is probably sittin pretty in their house. As far as the truth the article was accurate. where was this person when we needed help…a few people did help us. We would’ve helped others had we not been so affected. We did have our tools etc stolen off our property . We are not in a situation because of what we ” so called did or did not do ” this person is basically blaming us for the hurricane and is clearly an clueless idiot. We DID NOT block the national guard from helping anyone, the town did come down our driveway and fix the road from our property . If you question hat go to Cairns construction & speak with George or Glen Cairns and he can verify the facts since it is clear you do not know the facts. How can we ” burn ” anyone when it is clear no one can form their own opinion of us and who do not take the time to get to know us and chose to believe the bs they ” hear “. That’s pretty sad when you think about it. No one except the few people that know who they are NEVER tried to help us. So , Phil get your fact strait. If your property had been damaged as bad as ours you too would’ve tried to fix your own property before going to help others but since you’re probably sittin pretty with NO damage to your own you probably sat on your butt. You clearly did not take the time to even come meet us because if you had, you would know we’re not as bad of people as you claim.

  • Deborah Goodwin

    As a Stockbridge resident, I can attest that little of this story is true, except for the damage that the flood inflicted on the Smith’s property. The supposed “looters” were a figment of Drew’s imagination, as is the whole paranoid tale. Everyone in the town of Stockbridge and Gaysville pulled together and helped one another out in any ways we could.
    Businesses were eligible for SBA loans, if not FEMA grants, and there are several other state and federal programs to apply to for help, info which our town clerk provided me and anyone else. My property was severely damaged as well, and there is no magic money fairy to come in and hand out $300,000 (an outrageous estimate) to make it all better. But I’m sure that the many heros of Stockbridge who dug us out and rebuilt Stony Brook Rd would have been happy to volunteer some time to help the Smiths out, if their help would have felt welcomed. I feel very sorry that Drew and Rebecca feel this way about us, their neighbors.

    • Rebecca Smith

      There is NO ” supposed ” looters there were ACTUAL thieves that came onto our property while we were gone and stole our $1500 log splitter and our $5000 snow blower because they’re gone. It saddens me that people have formed these so called opinions of us without meeting us face to face because we’ve been here for 8 years and have yet to be invited to anyone’s house for even a cup of coffee. It is clear you people dont want to take the time to talk to us because if you had you would know we’re not what people say about us. As far as SBA we did try to get a grant / loan but they called us up on a Saturday with a smile and turned us down and as far as FEMA they gave us the minimum that would barely cover the rebuild of our wood shed. As far as the amount to fix the property it is mostly river front property that needs fixing and we run into all kinds of no’s from the state and them telling us we can not rebuild because if there’s another flood it would dam up the river. We welcomed all help but none of our so called neighbors can get their information right because we never turned down help. We needed big machines to get rid of the debris that floated > onto our property < and no one came down to help with that so before you start mouthing off what you claim we did…come down here & get the truth. Since we moved here 8 years ago only a hand full of people have come to visit so again I welcome all visitors that want to come down here & get to know us for themselves instead of listening to gossip & lies. If you cant take the time to come down & form your own opinion of us yourself then I feel sorry for you because we are very nice people that have put our lives on hold to care for our ailing parents. If we were mean people like some of said about us…would we have taken care of our parents all our lives.

  • gordon nichols

    How about this one. Whenm tha state asked the smiths for to use part of there property for the recovery of sand to rebuild roadfs they said NO! They where in no way involved in that community effort onm the bridge that day and have takin this reporter on a sad ride of absalute LIES. Please remove this story and in the future look into your resorces a little better before printing utter lies.

    • Rebecca Smith

      How do you know what we said…you dont know us. But, just to clue you in,…anytime someone came down here from the state , local or federal we told them they could have anything they needed. The Cairns construction company that was working on 107 came down and asked if they could use our property to get access to 107 we told them YES so get your facts strait before you start mouthing off. Thats this communities problem…they mouth off about stuff they know nothing about and start spreading rumors about how bad we are without getting to know us because 1/2 the people that have mouthed off and said stuff about us…we’ve NEVER MET…so come down here get to know us before spreading your LIES…As far as us not being involved in the community, we went to every meeting at the Gaysville post office and they talked about helping the community but we NEVER saw 1 person from our neighborhood down here other then Tony from Cobblehouse, Mike Burke and a guy by the name of Matt…these 3 ppl are the ONLY ones who helped us so dont go off half cocked with not the right information…We welcome all neighbors down for coffee , beer & wine. Even though we’ve apparently done something to the community unbeknownst to us…we still extend that offer to come down for coffee & get to know us so we can show we’re not the people think we are. Its SAD that people talk the talk but wont come face us face to face…

  • Rob and Maryann Abcunas

    So sorry to read this sad,sad story !! We were frequent campers in the early 80’s and on……..absolutely loved this campground run by Ginny and Denny !! We even brought friends in the Winter….stayed in their home and enjoyed skiing and their hot tub……….felt so sad when they sold and haven’t been since !!
    Hope all turns out positively for the owners and the quaint…..(only our experience) friendly Gaysville Vermont !!

    Rob and Maryann Abcunas

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