Witness: Trapped on a mountain "island" by Irene

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 30, 2011 8:28 PM

By Mike Miller

MARLBORO, Vermont (Reuters) - If you live on a mountain in Vermont, you might think you would be exempt from the ravages of floods. But you would be wrong.

In Marlboro, 1,200 feet above sea level and 600 feet above the Connecticut River that drains the area, the town's nearly 1,000 residents emerged from their homes after Hurricane Irene pummeled the area on Sunday to find they were stranded.

Vermont Route 9, a two-lane highway across the southern part of the state, was completely washed out.

Once-placid brooks that trickled down mountainsides became raging torrents. Culverts that normally took the water under the roads couldn't handle the volume, and roads collapsed under the onslaught. People who wanted to get to Brattleboro, the commercial center 10 miles to the east, were out of luck.

As Monday morning dawned bright and sunny, neighbors converged on the roads to exchange tips on possible ways out. It gradually became apparent that the roads and bridges were washed out in all directions. Marlboro was an island on a mountain, with no clear route to the outside world.

The area had lost electricity on Sunday morning as Irene, by then downgraded to a tropical storm, dumped 7 inches of rain in the space of a few hours.

I had just spent a week in Marlboro, best known as the home of the annual summertime Marlboro Music Festival of classical performances. I had a return train ticket to New York City for Sunday. Not surprisingly, Amtrak canceled all train service in the U.S. Northeast for that day.

I rebooked for Monday. Again Amtrak canceled the train, as it needed to check its tracks and signals. With no electricity in our house and no prospects for any in the near future, my wife and I decided to try to get to New York City by car.

We didn't get far. We set out for the nearest paved road but soon encountered some motorists coming the other way. They told us the paved road was out, but maybe we could get past the damaged spot if we went back the other way.

We tried it, barely getting past a couple of badly washed-out parts of the dirt road before we encountered a neighbor couple who had been out reconnoitering.

"Go home," our neighbor said in no uncertain terms. "You're not going anywhere."

A little farther down the road, as conditions grew worse, we decided he was right. We turned around and headed back for the house.

At one of the badly rutted parts of the road, I misjudged the distance and ended up with one wheel hanging over a cliff. Not only were we not going anywhere, but neither was our car.

Fortunately, another neighbor soon showed up with a tractor and pulled the car back onto the road. We made it back to the house and decided not to try again that day.

Venturing out again on bicycles, we heard more stories from people who were trapped in this picturesque locale of woods and lakes. One woman was supposed to start a new job that day, but she no longer had a driveway.

"I could get off my road if I built a bridge first," she said.

As the day went on, we heard reports that a repair crew was working on Ames Hill Road, a dirt track that leads to Brattleboro and thus to Interstate 91 and the outside world.

By evening, word got around that this road was now open.

Not wanting to travel on badly broken roads in the dark, we waited for morning. Too late. A semitrailer driver had tried to make it up the hill from Brattleboro and got stuck in the soft dirt. Once again, the road was impassable.

But word was circulating about a possible alternative route winding through back roads to Massachusetts, where it might be possible to connect with the interstate. We decided to try it.

We found a truck full of people who had the same idea.

"You can follow us," a woman in the passenger's seat said. "We think we know most of the way."

They knew it perfectly. We made it to New York that day.

For us, it was a minor inconvenience. For those who have nowhere else to go, the situation could soon turn dangerous, for all the spontaneous neighborliness that arose in the wake of the storm.

No electricity means no running water for most people in the area who depend on their wells and pumps. No trucks coming in from the outside mean no supplies of food and fuel. No roads mean people can't get to work or to stores.

A landlocked rural state like Vermont isn't equipped to handle hurricanes.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin summed it up nicely on Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now" program on Monday.

"We didn't used to get weather patterns like this in Vermont. We didn't get tropical storms. We didn't get flash flooding," he said. "Our storm patterns weren't like Costa Rica. They were like Vermont."

(Editing by Peter Bohan)