The hurricane came knocking, but nobody was home!

It had been over a year since our last vacation – and a rough year it had been.  We were SOOOO looking forward to our one week in North Carolina.  We delayed our vacation until the end of the summer because we were being held captive (financially, physically and emotionally) by our roof project.  When recently asked what was the most stressful experience in George’s life, he immediately described our two-month roof debacle in painful, vivid, heart-wrenching detail.  So, needless to say, our vacation beginning on August 28th was much-needed and well-deserved.

News of Hurricane Irene started making headlines during the week before our trip.  It grew to a Category 3 storm over the Bahamas on August 24th.  Predictions were that it would hit North Carolina on the 27th as a Category 4 storm. Holden Beach, our vacation destination, issued a mandatory evacuation on the 26th and closed the bridge to the island at 6pm.  Fortunately, by the night of the 27th, my father called to let us know all was well and they were back on the island.  Other than some minor beach erosion, Holden Beach was spared by the storm.  So as the storm continued northward that evening and the next day, we headed south.  We hoped for the best, altered our route further inland (Route 81 instead of Route 95) and left at 4am on Sunday the 28th for an 18 hour journey.

The storm was expected to follow the East Coast as far North as Maine.  We were mildly concerned about what might happen in Vermont, but really expected the worst of the storm to stay along the coast (three to four hours to our East).  Besides, we had a new roof – so what could go wrong?  It was raining when we left and it continued to rain, with some high winds, while we drove through all of New York and Pennsylvania. We witnessed some fallen trees and other damage along Route 81 but still believed the worst of the storm was far to our East.  When we crossed the border into Maryland shortly after noon, we were greeted with sunshine and blue skies.  Shawn called around 2pm to say they had arrived at the beach with no problems. He, Erik and Jessa had left seven hours before us.  He said it was sunny and beautiful – so it seemed that all our worries were behind us. Hallelujah!!

We crossed Virginia on Route 64 and drove through the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, rejoining our regular Route 95 in Richmond.  We started to see more storm damage and had trouble finding a gas station that had electricity. We were just re-entering the highway after another attempt to find a functioning gas pump at about 6pm when Erik called.  Without a “hello” or “how are you”, he abruptly asked, “How can Brady get in your house?!  He needs to get the keys to your cars!” I gave the phone to George.

The Pownal Covered Bridge before the 1938 flood

Reports from Erik’s friends in Vermont were that the river had overflowed its banks, crossed the road, filled our yard and was ready to sweep our cars down the raging river.  Our cars needed to be rescued!  The bridge that crossed the Hoosic River was closed and our whole street had been evacuated.  So it was true….. all of our worries were behind us – but they were not gone!  Damn!!

Erik was impatient as George suggested a few different ways Brady could break into our house to get our car keys.  We were pretty calm – not as panicked as Erik wanted us to be. The whole thing was incomprehensible. Plus we were on vacation – we had left our responsibilities behind.  We had conquered the beastly roof that plagued us with water problems before our trip.  “Ding, dong, the roof is done!”  It was hard to shift our mood back to the unrelenting problem of water being in places it didn’t belong.  Ugh!

Pownal’s last major flood was in 1938.  Our house is in the 100-year flood zone, meaning there is only a 1% chance of a flood every year – or one flood every 100 years. I thought we had another 27 years!!  In any case, we weren’t worried about our cars.  If you look at the photo of our house at left, the river is barely visible in the bottom right corner.  We have seen it reach the road before.  We’ve even seen it cross the road. But we never saw it go much further.  Our cars were parked on the highest ground of our property – in front of the garage and next to the house.  Erik’s friend, Brady, went up on Route 7 and got another look at our house from a higher elevation.  He decided the cars were fine and there was no need to break into our house.

Once we reached the beach, news started trickling back to us through phone calls, emails, facebook posts, the nightly news and more.  Hundreds of people were evacuated from our area to local schools and fire departments.  Our neighbors had been trying to contact us to see if they could stay in our house.  They have health problems and didn’t want to stay in a shelter. When water filled their garage and started coming into their living quarters, they found another place to stay.

The flood waters have begun to recede 8/29/2011

The flood waters are fully receded 9/08/2011

All around our home, bridges collapsed, roads were destroyed and many people suffered significant losses and damage to their property.    Bennington’s main water line was crushed when a bridge collapsed. There were videos on the internet of a car bobbing rapidly downstream in the raging Roaring Branch River near our local high school.

On the 31st I received a copy of a photo of our house that a friend had found on the internet (above, at right).  It was taken the morning after the storm, when the flood waters had already begun to recede. It’s a beautiful photo – the calm after the storm.  I took the photo at right this afternoon to show the field and the road from the same angle when they are not completely submerged in flood waters.

We were very lucky.  Not only did we enjoy a fabulous week at the beach with superb weather, but the damage we came home to was minimal.  Our basement filled with about three feet of water, which ruined the motors of our hot water heater and our oil furnace.  It’s a dirt-floored (well, mud now)  basement, so we don’t store much down there.  Everything from our ground floor and up was dry and our new roof kept out the torrential rains.  Our thoughts and prayers are with everybody who was affected by this storm.

The panoramic photo above was taken today – eleven days after the storm.  Those are the woods between our house and the river, still full of water and looking more like a swamp. All of the plants and other groundcover were flattened as the raging river laid waste to the forest floor.  Several trees were uprooted along both sides of the riverbank.  Many of the cornstalks were crushed by the rushing water and floating debris.  A 50-gallon compost bin travelled a great distance (from who knows where) before settling in between the rows of corn well beyond where the river seemed to run at its fiercest.  There’s a huge chunk of cement that somehow floated to the middle of the field.  The river is still very high and running very fast as you can see in the photo of our cabin below.  Hurricane Irene made her mark in the Peaceful Valley.  But we weren’t here to greet her!

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