By Jason McLure
QUECHEE, Vermont (Reuters) - When Hurricane Irene's torrential rains transformed the sleepy Ottauquechee River into a roaring wall of gray-green water a year ago, the Simon Pearce glass and pottery gallery's future was in doubt.
Located in a renovated woolen mill on a narrow gap by the river, flood waters surged 25 feet above normal, filling the bottom two floors of one of Vermont's most popular tourist attractions. It destroyed more than $200,000 in blown glass vases and tableware and wiped out a 3,000-bottle wine cellar for the gallery's restaurant.
On top of that, Irene washed out a covered bridge that was the gallery's main link to the state highway that brought most of Simon Pearce's 300,000 annual visitors.
"It was a triple, quadruple whammy," says Andrew Pearce, director of special projects at the gallery and son of its eponymous founder, of the flood that caused $3 million in damages to the business. "So much of my dad's work was washed down the river in an afternoon. You can sit around and mope or roll up your sleeves and start shoveling."
As Hurricane Isaac threatens to hit Florida, many on the East Coast are still struggling to recover a year after Hurricane Irene.
Once the storm made landfall in North Carolina on August 27, it moved north to deluge the Northeast, causing 40 deaths and an estimated $10 billion in damage to homes, roads and other infrastructure as far north as Maine and Quebec.
Though doomsday forecasts of the hurricane hitting downtown Philadelphia or flooding New York's subway never occurred, Vermont and parts of upstate New York were hard-hit, suffering the worst flooding in more than eight decades.
In Margaretville, New York, a village 140 miles north of New York City that sits in a valley in the Catskill Mountains, a street festival had just finished when it began raining. Hours later floodwaters from a branch of the Delaware River, strong enough to carry giant round hay bales, surged down the Main Street, destroying virtually the entire business district of the 700-person town.
The town's supermarket has reopened, but other businesses such as the local pub and a CVS drug store are being rebuilt, says Peter Molnar, a local innkeeper. The water crested eight feet above street level in one of Molnar's downtown lodgings, though he's repaired the damages with the help of a $30,000 grant from a local economic development agency.
"We're about 90 percent back," he said of the town. "We've seen the worst of Mother Nature and since then we've seen the best of human nature."
In Rochester, Vermont, a quiet brook that ran through a 200-year old cemetery burst its banks and tore through graves, scattering parts of about three dozen bodies up to three miles away and littering the main highway with remains.
A volunteer group of local funeral directors worked for a week to help restore the remains while local fire departments hauled in new caskets with off-road vehicles and groups of volunteers guarded the cemetery at night, says Thomas Harty, a funeral director from nearby Randolph, Vermon, who oversaw the work.
The task was complicated by the fact that a number of the remains carried away had been buried in an unmarked pauper's grave. Today remains of 23 bodies have been temporarily interred in concrete vaults while repairs to the cemetery continue, and unidentifiable remains are still being cataloged and occasionally uncovered.
"I never want to do it again," says Hardy, of the cleanup job. "For some years to come I anticipate we'll continue to make minor discoveries. Some hunter, some fisherman, some homeowner working along the back of their fields will make a discovery and we'll get a call."
At Simon Pearce, a crew of 30 employees spent two weeks working 11-hour days just to clear the debris from rooms filled with as much as five feet of mud. They dug out enough dirt and debris to fill 27 dump trucks and load two logging trucks with scrap metal.
With the help of $2.5 million in state and federal loans, Simon Pearce's parking lot is again filled with New York and Massachusetts license plates, and crowds gather to watch a half dozen artisans blow glass vases in a workshop that was filled to its ceiling with water a year ago.
"We used to use the saying ‘come hell or high water,'" says Pearce. "Now we leave out the high water part."
(Editing by Greg McCune and Vicki Allen)