Two Years Later: Lessons Learned From Tropical Storm Irene

Aug 30, 2013

In the two years since the flood, it’s been a tough journey for Vermonters as they process their trauma and loss.  Today many say they’re in a much better place. Several survivors in southern Vermont  recently spoke about what’s helped them move forward.

When the Deerfield River raged through Wilmington two years ago it left Bartleby’s Books a muddy mess. Owner Lisa Sullivan says right after the flood what helped her the most was getting things done.

“We needed to remove the dry wall. We needed to fix the front of the building,” recalled Sullivan.

At the time, Sullivan was also the President of the local chamber of commerce.  She said fixing tangible things in her store gave her a sense of control

"'How are we going to get a vibrant downtown back?' felt like it was something we couldn't take on."

“Whereas ‘how are we going to get a vibrant  downtown back?’ felt like it was something we couldn’t take on.”

Just about every business owner in the village of Wilmington was suffering. Across the river Jerry and Sheila Osler, owners of the Old Red Mill, an inn and restaurant, had $300,000 worth of damage. Even a concrete building that housed their furnace, was destroyed.

“Concrete just flattened,” said Osler. “The water came past here at least 30 miles per hour.”

Sheila Osler says she and her husband, who are both in their 70s had no choice, but to go into debt and make the repairs after 40 years in this business.

“This is our whole life!” said Osler.  “We have to sell it actually, shortly if we can and retire.”

Osler says what helped her move forward was keeping her emotions in check.

“I stamped my little size 6 shoe and said I will not  cry!” recalled Osler. “And I’ve tried to remember that all  the way along and it kind of helped hold it together .”

For another survivor, feeling the trauma was part of getting better.

“If you look upstream where you see that apple tree? My lawn went 30 feet to the right,” said Peggy Tiffany of Marlboro. “When Irene came through it took 60 feet of my property.”

Tiffany spent the day of the flood watching the branch brook get closer and closer to her door. She didn’t lose her house, but in the weeks following, her road was impassable. No phone, no internet. And the trees that once hugged her home were ripped away .

“It felt like such an invasion because I had been sort of hidden back here and I loved my little tuck away place,” said Tiffany. “And then all of a sudden I was exposed and people would slow down and stare.  I just felt really vulnerable. Vulnerable just in ‘what is the river going to do’? Is it going to come up again?”

The sound of the brook that once lulled her to sleep, became unnerving. Tiffany found herself unable to sleep or eat properly.

“I got really angry and upset and couldn’t control my feelings,” explained Tiffany. “So I got into therapy.”

Tiffany’s therapist diagnosed her with PTSD Post traumatic stress syndrome. She says the trauma of Irene has allowed her to understand her response to previous trauma in her life.

“Irene, I think was my trigger point that helped me get the help that I needed, to finally get to a place where I feel happy,” said Tiffany. “And I feel much more compassion for myself and for others.”

Gesturing towards the brook in front of her house, Tiffany said, “There’s a gentle sound to the brook again and I love coming out here and sitting here and listening to it again.”

North of here, in Wardsboro, Dennis and Vera Gervais spent August 28th two years ago surrounded by water, waiting to be rescued from a neighbor’s trailer. Their house was destroyed. Vera says what’s helped her move on is talking about the experience.  Dennis said funding from the Stratton Foundation and unexpected checks from strangers was key.

“We were real fortunate with the help that we got, to get our feet moving again maybe,” explained Gervais. “Get over that initial ‘oh we’re not going back home anymore.’”

The Gervais used the donations to put a down-payment on a new home, which they moved into more than a year ago. But they are still waiting on a federal buy-out. 

The Gervais’ old house still stands, ruined. Vera said she goes back searching for things, and stares when she drives by.

“I don’t like looking at it but I can’t stop,” said Vera Gervais. “We’ll always remember our 23 years there, but I think it will be easier to have nothing in that spot.”

When FEMA buys their destroyed house and clears it away, the Gervais expect that will be one of the final steps in their recovery.