When Irene Came
A writer in Bethel remembers August 28, 2011
Photos courtesy of Janet Hayward Burnham. Top to bottom: The view from the Church Street Bridge; a house on River Street; River Street Bridge.
Everyone in Bethel knew the hurricane was coming — we knew all about it. We knew the forecasters were saying it could be significant, and we knew why: August had been rainy, and we already had plenty of water in the ground. So we knew we didn’t need any more, particularly not in the quantity that a hurricane might bring. We also knew there was supposed to be high wind. So we stacked our yard chairs, tossed more rounds of wood on the tarps covering our woodpiles and brought our animals in.
But when Irene first arrived — not as a hurricane but as a tropical storm — she didn’t seem so significant after all. The rain started Saturday night, and, yes, it came steady, but around here we’ve all seen rain like that before. And we know rain. There’d be some washouts: roads where the gravel would be eaten and maybe some pavement, too. And maybe some people’s houses would be threatened. Because that does happen more often now: A thunderstorm hits, creating a flash flood in one area.
But even though we knew all this, even though we knew the land here is all ridges and river valley, brooks and streams pouring down from everywhere to merge, uniting in the river that runs through our village, we didn’t know the power of what was running at the level of our feet. We didn’t know what could happen if all those little waters — not just some here or there — began to rise. Which, on the 28th of August, they did.
Of course, some people must have understood what the actual magnitude of the thing might be. I was not one of them. I live on higher ground, and I didn’t realize. Even when it was here. It was a rainy Sunday, and I was alone at my house. I was still checking weather reports at a point when other folks had only to check out their windows to know they were in trouble.
For instance, three miles up Gilead Brook Road, the water was coming up fast — far too fast — and a woman was rushing to pack her car, trying to get out before it was too late. She had her little dog with her, but in the end she had to leave behind her son’s dog, Zeus. Maybe if she had been younger, she would have brought him, too. But at 60, she couldn’t: Zeus was larger, more rambunctious, more than she could handle.
Her son, meanwhile, was out working some job he wanted to finish. I don’t know for sure what he was doing: cutting trees, maybe, or splitting wood, though it was a Sunday. But even though he was out working in that rain, he didn’t know what was happening any more than I did. Then his mother called, and he headed straight for Gilead.
By the time he got there, you could no longer drive the whole way in. A cubic foot of water weighs a little over 60 pounds, and 60 pounds on 60 pounds countless times meant the beast was unleashed and the waters were going where they wanted. Two miles up Gilead, the brook was the size of a river by noon, and what once was road became river, and what once was meadow became gully, 30 feet wide, all churning water and torn-up trees.
Finally, around midafternoon, I heard the news that Gilead was flooded and that, over on the other side of the River Street Bridge, they were flooded, too. But still I didn’t understand. I thought it must be like the flooding we’d had here during that one big rain, oh, maybe a dozen years ago, when my girlfriend and I ran down to the park above the point where two branches of the river merge, watching as the picnic tables began to bob. That was a flood you’d have to try to get hurt in, the kind of flood where the waters seem to redefine their boundaries simply by pressing on them. And that’s what I thought all floods were like: something you could live with, if you just were careful.
So I called my brother. He was working a long weekend shift at a milk plant up in St. Albans. His road home, he said, was supposed to flood later on that night.
“I’m on ’til nine,” he said, “but guess I’ll leave at eight, seven-thirty if I can.”
“Why not leave now?” I asked. “It’s only milk.”
Then I called to check on my two friends who live in a house this side of the River Street Bridge, the town side. When they didn’t pick up, I worried, but I didn’t panic. I decided I would do some cooking and try them again in a little while. I didn’t know that already, just a few miles down the road, a husband and wife had been running through their barn, desperately trying to unhitch their cows as the river came pouring in, trying to move the animals — many of which they’d raised from calves — to safety. Twenty-five were swept away by the water. Somebody downriver saw one go by.
At another local farm, it was pigs that went with the rising waters. I don’t know the numbers, because later all the farmer would say when asked was that a lot of pigs died. And then, weary, he repeated it: “A lot of pigs died.”
I didn’t know. I was home, safe and sound and dry, taking a glistening black eggplant from the refrigerator. I didn’t know that three miles away at the fish hatchery, right on the river, they’d already been flooded out, too, hours before, half a million fish washed down the river by noon.
I didn’t know, but all over town, all over whole swaths of Vermont, the same thing was happening: streams and brooks and rivers swelling to huge and terrible dimensions, churning like furies through the landscape and taking everything in their path: trees, roads, houses, trucks. Toys, tires, sofas, stoves.
Me, I was making ratatouille. Slice the eggplant, salt it, let it stand.
Up in Gilead, Zeus the dog was in a small, one-story house that stands just before the juncture where two brooks join. The whole hollow was flooded. Zeus is a mutt, a medium-size dog, one of those muscular types. He has a Rottweiler head, an incessant heart and a smart, smart dog brain. But the water was huge, hurling rocks against the back of the house. Then it was coming in. Sixty pounds on 60 pounds. And, though the rain had stopped, the waters were still rising.
I called my brother again. He was driving: “Good, good,” I said. “I will call you back.” I tried my friends over on River Street a second time. No answer. I sliced the squash, the onions, the garlic. Put in basil. And then, just as it was getting dark, the power went out.
Up the hill across from the house, Zeus’ owner climbed. He knew mudslides were slopping down that hill. He knew that with one wrong step he’d be swept down into the flood; that he wouldn’t stand a chance.
I didn’t know him. I was done cooking. I brought the emergency candles out, made sure I had matches on hand. I called my brother. “Just pulling into the driveway!” he said. “I’m home.” I went out.
This is when I began to know. But it was just a start. A few hundred yards down the sidewalk, I looked north through the trees, down onto what was once, long ago in the 19th century, fairgrounds and a race track for horses, but which for years now has been the kids playing fields, a large stretch of land. The ball and soccer fields weren’t there. Only lake was there. And I could not see where that lake ended.
But, though I finally was looking, I still couldn’t see what was there. Consider the word that came to my mind. I looked and thought lake, but those fields were not a lake: They now were part of the river, and all the river was moving, and, though I didn’t know this because I couldn’t see it from where I stood, over on the main road north of my house, that river was running through the place we call the Dented Can Store and running through the plumber’s shop behind it, and running through the house of the woman who manages our post office; the river running a quarter of a mile beyond its usual banks through the fields and over the road and onto the other side, coursing through house after house, overtaking even the front row of the trailer park, shoving people’s trailers right off their moorings. And those people were lucky. Somebody else’s trailer washed away. Folks over on the other side of town saw it go under the River Street Bridge.
I didn’t know that, but the River Street Bridge was where I was heading. It was about 7:00 and getting dark, and I still knew so damn little. I didn’t know that up on Bethel-Gilead, the water had crested and was coming down, but that, even so, it was impossible to get to the house where Zeus the dog was — the man who had come to save him knew he would die if he tried to cross. So, in the midst of the awful din the flood made, the man called to the dog from the hill, watching as the water swept down on his house, pounding rocks against the back wall and pouring through, great surges sometimes bounding high into the air, dashing up against the roof, catapulting over.
Then I saw it myself, even before I got to the bridge on my street. And in that first glance from the street, it seemed almost as if the river in flood were something too powerful to look upon; as if somehow I had stumbled into an Old Testament story, blundering witless before the very countenance of God, a thing it’s said no mortal besides Moses has ever had the capacity to see and survive.
Fear was jabbing at my gut, but still I could not look away. I stood above the river on that bridge, gaping. Then I went down the bank to a railing and, gripping it, gaped some more, transfixed by the train-wreck force five feet below. What we had always naïvely thought of as our river now had become some primeval god of destruction, a massive, mud-colored serpent barreling through town. Soon it would have us all in its maw.
Then I remembered why I was there. I remembered my friends. I began to run, moving fast through the darkened town, past the store and the gas station, both closed, everything closed and dark, everything the same but different, because though I couldn’t hear it at this point, I knew that hurtling back behind the buildings on Main Street was that colossal water.
Before I even reached River Street, I could see the emergency lights strafing the cement embankment opposite, the eerie flashing colors of danger in the night. I went down the hill. Under the railroad overpass, there was a barricade. On my side of it, 10 or 15 people were milling, some talking in clumps, some standing closer to the underpass, their hands on the railing of the barrier. On the other side of the barricade was water over the road, a wading amount but not moving, and beyond that, the River Street Bridge, a bridge that for a couple of years had seemed so rickety, some folks in town were nervous driving over it. But here, in the awful rush of the flood, the bridge was still holding; I could see the front of it looming up out of the dark mist. And just before it, about 100 feet away, I could see the front of my friends’ house and their yard along the road. No water there, but it was getting darker.
“Do you know,” I asked a man in a yellow vest, “if the people in that house have left?”
“Well, I did see two or three rigs leave here,” he said, “so maybe they have, but I’m not sure — I don’t know them.”
“You mind if I check?”
“Your feet are gonna get wet!” he said.
I looked again. So maybe I didn’t want to get my feet wet. But the darkness was the only thing that really gave me pause. Still, would I have gone if I had known the state of things on the other side of the bridge?
But I didn’t know. All I knew was that I wanted to be sure my friends were all right. So I slipped under the barricade and slopped through the shin-high waters, wondering what kind of flooding there might be beside the house, wondering if the two of them would be there at all.
At first I thought they weren’t. But then, as I drew closer in the darkness, I saw the glow through the glass; I went in. A dozen sweet votive candles lit the room, and then my friends’ faces, too, as they turned toward me.
“Have you really come to check on us?” one of them asked. “We’re just about to eat dinner — have some?”
And then they each gave me, separately, a tour of the flooding in the yard. The back gardens were already underwater. The chickens had been let out because they would know what to do. The goats, because they wouldn’t, were in the back of the van by the house. Their usual homes in the basement below the shop were entirely flooded, the water having advanced nearly all the way up the four steps that led down to the pens from the driveway.
That’s what they were watching, my friend said. If the water came up over that last step, they would leave. But he didn’t think they would need to. Last they knew, the river was forecast to crest at 8:15, and now it was nearing 7:30. “Besides, if it gets bad fast,” he said, “we can always run up over the railroad tracks.
“Oh, and by the way,” he added, “the water is going over the River Street Bridge now.”
We were in the house again at this point. I walked through to the back side, the river side, and pulled open the slider door in the kitchen, heading for the concrete deck just off the back of the house, a place where many times I have been treated to dinner, savoring the food and my friends and the trees — their trunks, tall and straight, standing between us and the River Street Bridge to the right. And below, keeping us company always, 30 feet off and 20 feet down, the river itself, translucent waters my eyes have relished, sweetly rolling by.
Sunday evening at 7:30, I stepped out. The river was there — right there. It was roiling by half a foot below the deck: water, only water, water that was hard and swift and vast, sweeping by like the back of a dark and deeply powerful beast I could have knelt and touched.
It would have taken me in a second.
I went back in. I ate the freshly picked, wonderfully crisp green beans offered to me, three of them, then a slice of thick bread layered with salmon spread. And then, our supper over, I focused my energies the way a magnifying glass concentrates light, putting all I had into convincing my friends it really was time to leave.
We were lucky: We could leave. And we did. But Zeus the dog could not. He was trapped in a place that was all walls and river, waters he must have understood would kill him. Half-stumbling, half-swimming sideways against the fierce current, he must have made his way to the storage room at the back of the house where the gushing water was jamming a pile of household things against the wall — boxes and chairs — an always-shifting heap he must have clambered up so he could poke his nose into the rafters, up into what was the only pocket of air he could reach.
But how did he do it? The water was pounding through. It must have been swirling with wreckage, the force of that water and the things in it constantly battering him. How did that dog keep his nose above the water?
“I sat on the hill,” the man who loves Zeus later said, pointing, “up there. And I called to him. I stayed ’til it was just about dark, calling his name. Sometimes I could hear him yelping back and I stayed calling, long as I could, ’til it was getting dark, ’til after the water started going down.”
The next morning, the morning after the flood, was strangely lovely, a perfectly sunny and soft, end-of-summer day. All over our town, people were waking up and seeing what would have to be done. Roads and sidewalks and driveways were gone, entire fields layered under two feet of mud. This side of the River Street Bridge, their house thankfully spared, my friends were shoveling soggy bedding up out of the goat pen. On the other side of the River Street Bridge, neighbors were lining up to help the people whose places were wrecked, carrying out chairs and tables, armfuls of coats and books.
But, hours before this, just as soon as it was light, the man who’d been unable to save his dog the night before made his way the three miles back up to his house in Gilead. He did not know if Zeus was alive, and in some places the hike was just as dangerous as it had been the day before. He had to climb steep hills to get around the stretches where the road still was still river, risking mudslides once more. He also had to clamber over a tree that had fallen across the flooded brook, teetering over a current still strong enough to sweep away a car. Because that was what it was like living here in the Flood of 2011 — the waters rose and took us by surprise.
But he made it. And when he opened the door, out with a gush of two feet of water barreled Zeus.
It was a joyful reunion.
Hilary Mullins’ essay first appeared in the online magazine Numéro Cinq. When she isn’t writing, she makes her living teaching, preaching and cleaning windows.