Tropical Storm Irene, 10 Years Later
A listener's request about the legacy of Tropical Storm Irene prompted Brave Little State to tell three stories about resilience — personal, entrepreneurial and spiritual.
In this installment of our people-powered journalism show, Josh Crane follows up with John Graham and Beth Frock, who’ve been on a decade-long journey to rebuild their life after Irene shattered their former one. Angela Evancie tells a tale of two southern Vermont businesses, and Myra Flynn takes us to one community where the flooding affected residents both living and deceased.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio above if you can! But we also provide a written version of the episode below.
First up: John Graham and Beth Frock
Reported by Josh Crane
John Graham and Beth Frock have lived in Rochester for 25 years. Ten years ago, their lives changed forever. “I can kind of just almost relive it,” John says.
John is talking about Tropical Storm Irene. It hit Vermont on Sunday Aug., 28, 2011, and the damage in certain parts of the state was catastrophic. All these years later, the details of what happened that day in Rochester are still fresh in John’s memory.
“Over the course of the day, it just never stopped raining, this torrential rain,” he says. “Trees started disappearing from outside our window ... one, then the next, and the water just kept rising.”
One thing to know about John and Beth’s house at the time is that it was not located in an official flood zone. It was situated high up on a hill overlooking a small creek.
But on that day 10 years ago, the small creek turned into a raging torrent. The water ate away at the hill that gave John and Beth’s house its elevation.
“I can remember how the air just filled with this smell of fresh dirt because it was just pulling out the dirt from under the foundation, “ John says. “And then at one point the basement walls collapsed. The water rushed through catapulting everything that had been in there out like it was in a cannon. Even if you know how extreme the situation is, you really can't sense just how extreme it is. And we were outside and our daughters remember that our cats are inside. So we went back in to get them.”
In hindsight, John and Beth say they should have evacuated much sooner. Instead, they went back inside to find their two cats, Guinevere and Theo. Beth found Guinevere pretty quickly.
“I picked him up and ran out of the house,” Beth recalls. “And I'm running and I turn around and look over my shoulder and John's not there. And then the house falls into the river.”
Yes, you read that correctly: The house fell into the river. With her husband still inside.
“And I had to then crawl through the rubble to get back out,” John recalls.
“And that was it,” Beth says. “That was the reality of that moment. I had no idea that that was going to happen until it did.”
In the aftermath of Irene, John Graham and Beth Frock spoke to VPR many times about their struggle. When I ask John and Beth why they were so open about their personal lives and the immense challenges they faced, they say that people in their community were just happy to know they were doing OK.
“And it wasn't just us. To a certain degree, it was everybody,” Beth says. “We happen to be the ones that got talked to, but I think for people it was about processing that for everybody [in the flood zone].”
The reason I wanted to talk to John and Beth again was because of a question someone submitted to Brave Little State. Really it was more of a comment. They wrote, “I’d like to hear Vermonters’ stories from Hurricane Irene. Those not impacted, those who lost everything, and those still recovering.”
This question-asker never responded to our emails, but their curiosity connects to something that John and Beth’s oldest daughter, Rhianna, once said to VPR four months after the storm. She was 16 years old at the time.
“We talk about the 1927 flood, but we just talk about the flood. We don’t really think about what the people went through,” Rhianna said to VPR in Dec., 2011. “You think, in another hundred years, what are people going to be saying about this flood?
That’s what this story marking the 10th anniversary of Irene is about: the people, what they went through, and in some cases, what they’re still going through.
John Graham and Beth Frock’s journey hasn’t just involved getting over the devastation of having their home of 15 years crumble into the water, almost taking John with it. It also meant waiting for the ruins of that house to finally be cleared away. It meant dealing with the fact that their homeowner’s insurance didn’t cover any of the damage. It meant waiting years to get out from under mortgage payments for a house they could no longer live in. It meant getting approved for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) buyout with no timetable of when they would actually receive the money.
Nearly a year and a half after Irene, in Dec., 2012, VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Beth.
“So it’s all just a waiting period at this point?” Mitch asked. “Everything seems to be in limbo. I mean, I know it sounds like Groundhog Day when we speak to you guys about this. But it’s got to be unbelievably frustrating.”
“I still wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking about it,” Beth said. “You know, until we get the money, we don’t feel positive that we’re actually gonna get it.”
John and Beth also had to replace their belongings, most of which had gotten washed away with their house. Beth spoke to VPR about a month after Irene.
“It’s sort of this chain of things you don't realize what you don't have — somebody gave me baking sheets, and I thought, ‘Oh good, I can make cookies,'” Beth remembers. “But then I realized I didn't have any measuring cups ... And then I got the measuring cups, and then I realized I don't have baking soda or baking powder. So actually, yeah, because if we have to replace all those little things, it's so many things, just little things that you don't think about.”
The psychological toll
John and Beth have long since managed to replace their baking soda and baking powder and the dozens of other everyday things they had previously taken for granted.
“It’s really hard to lose all your stuff,” Beth says. “Like, people will say to me, ‘Oh, I don't care if I lost all my stuff, I don't care if my house burned to the ground.’ Well, they're clueless. I mean, I might have said that too before. But when it's all gone, it's really hard. It's really hard.”
It’s the irreplaceable things they lost in the storm that still weigh heavy on their minds.
“I had a priceless feathered hat that was made in the '30s that was my grandmother's, that's the one that I regret the most,” Beth says. “Not priceless, financially priceless, but to me.”
And John notes that even though it’s just stuff, it serves as a mirror of sorts.
“Well, your identity is invested in what you choose to bring into your life as objects. It’s reflective of who you are, to a certain extent,” John says. “So it's like, you feel like you've been stripped away of something that reflects who you are.”
John and Beth still live in Rochester, much further away from the river, in a house that John’s mother used to live in. And while it’s taken much of the past decade for them to rebuild their lives in the literal sense, they’ve also had some internal rebuilding to do.
“We haven't been sleeping well, nobody in this town has been sleeping well,” Beth said, about a month after the storm. "From what the Red Cross said to me, that's classic, that trauma that the whole town feels. We just don't sleep well.”
“Yeah, it's up and down," John added. "It's, you know, your proverbial emotional roller coaster. You think you're getting better and then one day you might go back, right. When it rains it sort of like triggers a physiological reaction. It just feels like the same feeling we had just before it happened. We just have this sense of dread and you can't really pin it down.”
It wasn’t just rain that gave John a sense of dread. He says it was also anything that brought him back to the experience of being stuck inside his collapsing house.
"My youngest daughter's violin teacher took us to see Natalie MacMaster at the Paramount in Rutland,” he recalls. “And it was packed. And when she got going, everybody started stamping their feet. And we were on the balcony. And I could just feel that motion and I almost had to leave. I had to master a panic attack because it was just recreating that sense of when the ground beneath your feet is no longer doing what your entire life has taught you it should do.”
At this point, John’s panic attacks are long behind him. But for Beth and for him, they still experience the impacts of Irene when they close their eyes to go to sleep at night.
“I've had lots of dreams that involve walking through buildings that are semi-flooded,” John says.
“Right, exactly. It’s not drowning, because that wasn't about drowning,” Beth adds. “But just water, water everywhere.”
Strength in neighbors
Looking back, John says Irene changed him in profound ways.
“Psychologically, I feel different. I approach things differently. I feel like I'm more direct than I used to be. I can't waste time beating around the bush.”
Perhaps the part of John and Beth’s Irene experience that stayed with them the most, though, wasn’t the trauma. It was the way their neighbors rallied around them when they were at their lowest point, feeding them, helping them salvage what they could of their belongings and checking in on them from time to time.
“That was really monumental in just shaping how I feel about things politically or socially. I believe people basically want to do good," John says. "We didn't even have to ask for help. There were just people looking to help us.”
John and Beth watched their Rochester community respond in a similar way more recently, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“The few people that did get COVID here were very supported in the same way. So we still do that. And we still remember that,” Beth says.” And we know whenever anything happens to anybody, I think, more quickly than before [Irene], everyone rallies around them.”
John says that same spirit of togetherness made it so that the majority of his community took all the precautions that were advised by the governor and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) seriously.
“You know, there's a sense of civic responsibility. Especially now, we live in a time, politically, [when] there are groups that prey on people's fears and try to, you know, trigger their fears. And it's like, it's not a healthy way to live,” John says.
He adds: “If people realize that there's strength in their neighbors, that [would give] them a much firmer foundation for their own lives. I think that is the lesson, if there's a lesson to be learned.”
When I initially contacted John Graham and Beth Frock for this story, they said they were expecting to hear from VPR. Ten years since Irene is a big milestone, after all. But they don’t have any plans of their own to mark the occasion.
Instead, they’re living life day-by-day, and taking nothing for granted. Or, as John puts it: “Still living our lives, moving forward.”
A tale of two businesses
Reported by Angela Evancie
Of course, it wasn’t just families affected by Irene. It was businesses, too.
Sheila Osler offers me coffee at least three times during our interview. She also offers several times to warm a muffin up for me. I shouldn't be surprised. Along with her husband Jerry, Sheila has been in the hospitality business since 1973. At this point, they’re in their eighties.
“We’ve had the [Old] Red Mill [Inn] here in Wilmington for 48 years,” Sheila says. “As you can see from looking around, it's very rustic. It was originally built as a lumber mill in 1828.”
It’s a neat spot: It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and situated about 8 miles from Mount Snow. Sheila can recommend activities in any direction.
We’re sitting in a dining room here at the Old Red Mill Inn that overlooks the Deerfield River. The water is pretty far down below us. Like, at least a story. But 10 years ago, Sheila says it came up 20 feet.
“I will show you a little later the watermark on the wall in front of the office there,” she says. “The water was about 6 inches high on this floor.”
Irene did half a million dollars in damage.
“It took a couple of years for it to really get back up to normal,” Sheila says.
In recent decades, the Red Mill has had its share of challenges. Irene wasn’t even the first.
“We've had this cyclical problem of the ups and downs of the economy,” Sheila says, “starting with the economic crash in 2008 that really did a number on us, and then the flood coming on top of that.”
And then, of course, COVID.
“We were closed from late March of 2020 until — I guess it was the first of August of that summer. And then the recovery definitely was very minimal,” she says. “This summer, it seems to have picked up a bit. Not completely, but it has improved.”
I’m here on a Tuesday in August, and Sheila says there are two rooms booked out of 24. She says that’s a bit slower than a usual summer weekday, and they’re always busier on weekends. The inn also has two long-term guests, who work in the area.
“We call them, lightly, ‘monthlies,' because they schedule by the month with us,” Sheila says. “They also have permission to be in the kitchen.”
And that’s about all the use the Inn’s kitchen gets these days. A few years ago, Sheila and Jerry made the decision to close their 150-seat restaurant. Sheila says they can still get by with just the inn portion of their business. But that restaurant had employed 18 people. Now the inn has two staff.
“Right now, only housekeeping. And we do have a maintenance person that comes on a regular basis,” Sheila says.
I noted in conversation with Sheila that it was interesting to hear her reflect on so many types of challenges.
“It has been an unfortunate — I hate to sound as if I'm whining. I guess I am, and I don't mean to be,” Sheila says. “We've stayed in business because we felt we had to. But you know, hope springs eternal.”
Sheila does have a positive vision for the future. She thinks the shift to more remote work bodes well for recreational communities like Wilmington.
“People have learned that they can have, kind of, their cake and eat it,” she notes. “Especially if they're interested in skiing, or, in the summer, golfing.”
Get a bit more population growth, and Sheila figures you could re-open the Mill’s bar and restaurant — even start a brewery.
But she and her husband Jerry won’t be making that investment. They want to retire, and spend more time with their kids out west. So they’re looking to sell the Inn.
I ask if any of their prospective buyers have been worried about the river down below us, and the potential for more flooding like Irene, driven by climate change.
“Actually, I have to say that I don't think they thought about that too much. The flood 10 years ago was the first of that magnitude since 1938. And for the same reason that people buy property near the beach, especially in the Carolinas and Georgia and Florida — I mean, are they crazy? Because obviously there's going to be hurricanes. But I think they feel, ‘It's not going to happen to me.’”
Sheila and Jerry Osler are looking to move on from their business. But about an hour north of here, in the town of Londonderry, I meet someone who wants to stay right where she is. And Judy Platt isn’t taking any chances when it comes to flooding.
“I tell people, I just always keep my eyes on the river,” she says.
Along with her husband Tom, Judy owns the Garden Restaurant and the Garden Market in North Londonderry (the couple lives in Weston).
“We have several rental apartments in our two big buildings. We also own the old post office, which we are hoping to make into more rental units,” Judy says. “And we've been here for 50 years. And we hope that we can stay.”
So that’s three buildings that the Platts own, right here on the east bank of the West River. It’s visible from the parking lot behind the old post office, where Judy and I stand to talk.
During Tropical Storm Irene, Judy says, the river “came into our restaurant and was 10 feet deep in our dining room. In the middle of our parking lot at the height of the storm, the water was up to our necks.”
It was almost $800,000 worth of damage.
“Since then, we've had two more epic floods ... and we have a lot of flood debt, obviously, that we can't seem to climb out of,” Judy says. “But we are engaged in this project here.”
The project Judy references is how she and her husband want to secure the future of these buildings: by fortifying them against flood water.
“We're raising the [former] post office to 4 feet above the flood level, which will make it flood proof, we hope,” Judy says. “And the government is participating with us in a grant where they put in three quarters of the money and we put in a quarter of the money.”
This project has taken almost exactly 10 years to get underway. Over the past decade, others in Londonderry have taken buyouts to have their flood-prone properties leveled. After Irene, there was much discussion about the need to give our rivers a wider berth. But Judy says FEMA saw value in these buildings, so they agreed to help preserve them.
On the day I visit, the old post office is up on stilts, with a new foundation underneath, prepped for additional loads of gravel.
As for the other two buildings that the Platts own, the restaurant and the market, Judy says the plan is to build a giant retaining wall.
“They will be fortified with a concrete wall that goes around them, and then where the windows are, there are titanium inserts that go in. And they're waterproof,” she explains. “It's engineering that comes out of Holland, because they've been working with their flooding for a long time.”
For that, though, the Platts are having trouble securing funding.
“We've reached out to banks, and in this climate, they don't want to have anything to do with restaurants,” Judy says.
Right now the restaurant is closed — the Platts are hoping a renovation will be part of the FEMA project. Next door to that, their market is open, but with limited hours.
“Only because there's a labor shortage,” Judy explains, referencing a shortage of workers that’s become more pronounced during the pandemic.
I ask Judy which she would rather face up against as a business owner: a flood, or a pandemic?
“That's a hard question. I think I'd take a flood,” she says. “[We’ve got] more practice.”
And come pandemic or high water, Judy Platt wants these businesses to endure.
“Even if we are not here, the restaurant will probably always be here, you know, and that's what we're doing. We're just continuing to get it ready.”
For now, the rental properties in the Platt’s buildings are helping cover their losses on the restaurant side. Judy Platt says there’s no shortage of interest in those.
Re-burying the dead
Reported by Myra Flynn
When I speak with Tom Harty of Rochester, he’s at the United Church of Bethel, where he has been a pastor for 20 years. We’re talking about a morbid event that took place during Tropical Storm Irene that I was surprised to find wasn’t reported on much in Vermont.
“It happened during the night. So we were unaware of it in Randolph — and of course, then communications went down,” Tom recalls. “And the next day, we got a call at the funeral home, saying that the cemetery had been hit.”
Tom is speaking to me in front of a sunny stained glass window and a modest altar. He looks regal or chosen for some sort of higher cause or purpose, and I’m not far off. Alongside being a pastor, he’s a managing funeral home director, a former state medical examiner, and a former state trooper. In his community, he’s known for wearing many hats. He’s also known as "the dead people guy."
“I think part of the reason that I got tapped was like, ‘OK, you're the dead people guy,’” Tom says. “So, you know, I've just been around tragedy.”
The night Tropical Storm Irene tore through Vermont, Tom had a rare chance to wear all of his hats.
“I took a four-wheeler and went down U.S. Route 100,” Tom says. “And when I got to where the driveway for the cemetery should be, there's this huge mound of gravel, seven or eight feet tall, where Route 100 should be, and there was a coffin on top of it. “
Woodlawn Cemetery has been in service to the community since the early 1800s, and is the burial ground to more than 1,000 dead. It’s built right next to the Nason Brook, but well above the water, and had survived two previous disasters completely unscathed: the floods in 1927 and the New England Hurricane of 1938. So no one thought of it as a flood zone. But when Irene hit, it was the Nason Brook that caused all the problems.
“So the cemetery was now divided in two sections, by this gorge down through it, that had washed out the graves, a lot of the things that tumbled into this gorge. And it was 12, 14 feet deep,” Tom says. “I mean, it was astounding to see what the power of water can do in a short few minutes.”
Though it is rare, it’s not unknown for flooding to disturb graves. Hundreds were pulled out of the ground by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Mississippi, Louisiana and other parts of the South.
But while a low water table in those places means some graves lie in above-ground vaults, it’s not so common for a flash flood to do similar damage in an area like Vermont, where caskets are buried well above sea level.
Ten years ago, on the infamous night of the storm, the Woodlawn Cemetery in Rochester flooded so severely that an estimated 52 grave sites washed away, uprooting coffins and remains of community loved ones, some of whom had been laid to rest nearly 50 years prior.
Small town stuff
“Our first goal, of course, was to bring some respect and dignity to the remains that we found, and at least get them, you know, out of the locations they were in and shelter them somehow,” Tom says. “And then begin the task of counting and identifying. And then of course, the task was, well, where do they belong? Who was this? You know, where was their grave? Because the land no longer existed. It was gone.”
Tom used every connection he could think of to recover the disturbed remains, right down to his own daughter, 20-year-old Bridget, who collected, cataloged and photographed jewelry, and obtained DNA samples for testing.
The task eventually led Tom to Dr. Elizabeth Bundock, the state’s Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, who had also never seen anything like this.
“The identification of the bodies turned out to be a long process,” she says.
Dr. Bundock didn’t even allow press at the cemetery. And I wonder whether part of the reason she was (and continues to be) so protective of these deceased, is because she spent a lot of time with them.
“Just identifying everybody, because they're not marked,” Dr. Bundock says. “Once they come out of their caskets, which was many cases, we had to re-identify them. And it actually took years to finish that part of the project.”
Tom and Dr. Bundock worked in tandem, looking for identifying markers on skulls or asking living family members for DNA samples.
“And then we also worked with the cemetery staff who know local families and [said things like]: ‘Oh, yes, you know, so and so's granddaughter is this person,” Dr. Bundock recalls. “Small-town stuff, small-town stuff is really what solved this dilemma. It was a very local response and a wonderful town with great people, and everybody pulled together to get the kind of horrific thing done.”
The medical examiner’s office believes they recovered 24 intact bodies and just over 70 individual bones. Twenty-two of the bodies and four skulls were successfully identified. Two bodies were not.
Even when loved ones were identified, they couldn’t be reburied right away, because the land simply didn’t exist anymore. So bodies were kept in burial vaults and stacked above ground in a semi-circle, as a kind of temporary monument. It lasted all winter, collecting flowers and prayers from the community until the cemetery was totally rebuilt, the graves were plotted and the land of Woodlawn was put back together.
But they still needed caskets, since all had been decimated in the storm. So Tom called up a big casket manufacturer. In this case, federal reserves — and Tom’s wallet — came to the rescue.
“And they said, ‘Well, we have a special FEMA casket that we use for disasters,’” Tom recalls. “And they said, ‘Who's going to pay for these?’ And I said, 'FEMA.’ And they said, ‘What are we gonna do in the meantime?’ And I was like, ‘I'll give you my credit card number.’ Yeah, I put the first the first 30 caskets on my credit card.”
And Dr. Bundock adds, “After having worked 16-hour days, and days and days in a row, in hot weather, climbing over rocks, to get these people recovered, to see those trucks coming over the hill and driving up into cemetery made me cry. It was a big deal.”
As for those two bodies that weren’t identified? They were eventually buried in a special casket built by local students — with wood from evergreens that went down in the cemetery during Irene.
“It's kind of a moving thing to stand there and look at that now, in this lush, green serene landscape, with this babbling little brook behind you in this wonderful pastoral setting with the mountains surrounding you,” Tom notes. “You forget that Mother Nature really wreaked havoc on that night back in 2011. It’s amazing.”
Resilience as an infrastructure
Tom says he’s not too worried about this sort of thing happening again, because the town has since been rebuilt in a more resilient way. Great care was taken to reroute the Nason brook with huge boulders that can withstand tremendous pressure, and keep the water away from the cemetery.
Highway 100, below the cemetery, was also rebuilt. And the drainage systems were examined, and can be reinforced should this come up again. The bridges in the area, built over tiny brooks, now have a very wide clearance to give more room for vehicles — and whatever else may come across them.
Infrastructure aside, it’s people Tom worries about most.
“It was just very hard for people to process the fact that they had put their mother or father or grandfather to rest for eternity, right? That's this Christian view. And guess what? They're not where you thought they were, they're gone,” Tom says. “It sounds strange coming from a funeral director, but the memorialization of the dead, the way we do it [in] the United States, is really different than in most places in the world.”
It only takes a click of Google to learn that Tom’s not wrong.
In Tibet, some Buddhists leave their dead outside for birds or other animals to devour, embracing the circle of life and giving sustenance to animals.
A tradition in some parts of India involves parading the dead through the streets, the bodies dressed in colors, and then cremated.
And in some Nordic countries, water is a preferred grave. Some set bodies adrift in “death ships,” either along a river or sent out into the ocean, giving the bodies back to the Gods.
I asked Tom what kinds of changes we should expect, when it comes to burying our dead? He says in order to change our rituals, we first have to change our perspectives.
“We, you know, we secure ourselves a plot of land, we get a deed for it. It's our Family Plot. And we put our ancestors there and we're going to go there someday. Well, that's great in a lifespan, sense of time. But over geologic time, it means nothing. Right?” Tom says. “Vermont was one time covered with a mile-thick layer of ice. It's what carved the Green Mountains. Humans mean nothing, and we have to put ourselves in the perspective of where we are in time and space, and [have] a little less hubris.”
And Tom says we shouldn’t wait for death to learn some of these lessons about our impermanence.
“Between, you know, the natural disaster we are used to and a pandemic, they both shut down certain parts of our societies very quickly. The natural disaster tends to do it immediately, right? We have a flood, you can't do things, you have a wildfire, you can't do things, you have a hurricane, you can't do things. With COVID, people had to realize that you could still do it, but you should not do it,” Tom says. “And you should not do it for the good of others. We may not always be able to do what we think we can do. We may be at the top of the food chain, but we are certainly not in charge of nature.”
Josh Crane, Myra Flynn and Angela Evancie reported and produced this episode. Editing from Lynne McCrea. Mix and sound design by Josh Crane and me; engineering support from Peter Engisch. Digital production by Myra Flynn and Elodie Reed. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Melody Bodette, Mitch Wertlieb, and others at VPR who spoke to the Graham-Frock family over the years. Thanks also to Greg Lesch, Kathleen Brochin, Ben Rose and Howard Weiss-Tisman.
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