BRANDON — The heart of Brandon was devastated by a disastrous flood Sunday as rains from Tropical Storm Irene caused the Neshobe River to overflow and rage through the downtown.
Hundreds of roads and dozens of bridges around Vermont were washed out during the storm, which brought seven or more inches of rain to the state in a day’s time. The event is the worst natural disaster to hit the Green Mountain State since the flood of 1927.
A heavy, steady rain had been falling since before dawn on Sunday when, at roughly 3:30 p.m., the swollen Neshobe River started to overflow at Kennedy Park next to the Watershed Tavern and run down Center Street, which is also Route 7. Within minutes, the Brandon Fire Department closed the road in both directions, and within a half hour, the road was the river.
Onlookers gathered throughout the afternoon and evening to watch in awe as the water coursed over the downtown bridge (Bridge 114) and past the Briggs Carriage building, gradually flooding the Mobil station and the yard of the Vermont Sandwich Company building, which also houses The Brandon Reporter’soffices on the second floor.
The water became a torrent as it rushed past the front of the Briggs building and down the driveway, and into the parking lot behind the Mobil station.
“I’m just sick,” said Paula Holman, who had come from her home on West Seminary Street with her grandson to watch the unbelievable unfold on Sunday afternoon. “We expect floods with the river here and the Otter Creek, sure, but not like this. It just breaks my heart.”
Over the next three hours, it became clear that the Brandon House of Pizza building, next to the Watershed, was compromised. The first thing to go were the front steps, which cracked as they let loose from the building and floated down the street, coming to rest in front of 4 Conant Interiors on the other side of the downtown bridge. Both the Brandon House of Pizza and Watershed were literally built over the river, and the flood waters pounded them both, the water rising roughly halfway up the back of the structures.
At about 5 p.m., the river started to separate the Brandon House of Pizza from its foundation, and moved it about 20 feet. It came to rest just short of a collision with Rich Rowe’s barbershop.
Brandon was one of many towns across the state hit hard by Irene. Since so many were mill towns back in the day, it’s hard to find a town that isn’t next to a river or stream, and Irene’s rainfall caused them all to flood on Sunday. The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) reported that more than 30 bridges were compromised or destroyed and 230 roads were damaged or washed away across the state. President Obama has declared a state of emergency in Vermont and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) arrived on Tuesday with support and supplies.
But Brandon was hit particularly hard. The river started to recede at about 10 p.m. Sunday night, and in the early morning light on Monday, the devastation was clear and overwhelming. The floodwaters carved a 30-foot-wide trench in front of the Briggs building, collapsing the ground and the pavement into a 20-foot chasm that wound around behind the building, which houses the Nifty Thrifty thrift shop and the Safer Society Foundation. One of the bay windows was broken, and the corner of the building was bowed.
Farther up, the pavement was buckled and collapsed on the shoulders of the street in front of 4 Conant Interiors and the Brandon Town Hall. Bridge 114, which had been on the fast track by VTrans for rehabilitation earlier this year after several poor condition reports, remained intact, but The Green Park was decimated.
Formerly the site of a dilapidated building, the park epitomized Brandon’s renaissance over a decade ago after renowned folk artist Warren Kimble and others bought the property, tore down the old building, and established the park. Much of the work was paid for with generous donations from Brandon residents, whose names appeared on bricks laid in the park walkway leading to a wooden gazebo that overlooks the Neshobe River falls. On Monday, the gazebo was stills standing, but two-thirds of the park was washed away, the bricks lying in piles, a park bench on its side in a sunken pit of earth and pavement. Word circulated on Tuesday that a new sale of bricks may be launched soon.
Perhaps the most startling site in the aftermath was the Brandon House of Pizza building, which was sitting about a foot from Rich Rowe’s barbershop. The wooden structure was balanced gingerly on a cement berm that was once the front support of the building.
Rowe, 82, lives above the barber shop, which he has owned and operated for 55 years. Despite the urgings of police and fire department personnel, Rowe refused to leave the building Sunday night. On Monday morning, he assessed the damage to his shop, which was water logged but intact.
“I told them when they put in Kennedy Park (behind the Watershed and Brandon House of Pizza) that flooding was going to be a problem,” Rowe said.
On Monday morning, a broken water pipe gushed from the side of the Watershed building, next to an arch-shaped 15-foot crack in the brick wall. Stylish bar chairs were left piled in the doorway by floodwaters that raged through the business. The pavement in front of the two buildings was rippled and jagged with large pieces overlapping each other. It looked like an earthquake had hit downtown Brandon.
Steve Zorn, co-owner of 4 Conant Interiors, was outside his building Monday morning. The pavement and sidewalk in front was torn up, but the large brick store was unscathed.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Everything seems OK.”
Behind Sully’s restaurant was a 20-foot-wide gully where the flood had eroded the earth down to the bedrock. Brandon Fire Chief Bob Kilpeck had had a close call there Sunday night when he went to check the back of the building. The ground opened up underneath him and he fell roughly five feet into the void, landing on his side. Fortunately the firefighter he was with pulled him to safety and he was uninjured.
ASSESSMENT AND TRIAGE
Remarkably, there were no injuries or deaths reported in Brandon as a result of the flood, said Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell on Tuesday morning.
Brickell and Kilpeck met with other Brandon officials at the fire station on Monday at 8 a.m. to assess the situation and make a plan. In attendance were selectboard Chair Richard Baker, Selectman Devon Fuller, Water District Superintendent Ray Counter, Public Works Superintendent Brian Sanderson, Assistant Fire Chief Eric Mallory, Police Lt. Rod Pulsifer, Dave Markowski of Markowski Excavating and several Brandon firefighters.
Baker said the biggest concern was the condition of Bridge 114 over the Neshobe in downtown. If that is deemed safe by a state bridge inspector, Markowski Excavating will work to dig up the damaged pavement through downtown and build at least a single-lane gravel road through town. But, since so many bridges were affected across the state, it was thought that an inspector wouldn’t arrive in Brandon until Thursday.
Baker on Tuesday night said he expected the bridge to be open to some extent by Friday.
Brickell said another challenge will be keeping curious onlookers away from the downtown as the ground and the buildings continue to shift and settle.
Fifty-five-gallon orange water drums have been set up in a line across Route 7 in front of Café Provence and also in front of the Episcopal Church to stop traffic. Kilpeck said that business owners are allowed to enter their businesses with a firefighter escort and have five minutes to collect what they need.
Businesses and buildings affected and shut down by the flood include the town offices; the Conant Block, which houses Gourmet Provence, Adornment jewelry studio and Vermont Sports Medicine, among others; Brandon House of Pizza; Twilight Video; Liza Myers Gallery; James’ Frames; 4 Conant Interiors; the Mobil station; the Vermont Sandwich Company; Safer Society; and Nifty Thrifty. The Brandon Reporterhas temporarily set up shop at the Addison Independentin Middlebury; they can still be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Officials deemed the Smith Block safe and the Aubuchon Hardware store reopened on Monday. Sully’s Restaurant and Café Provence were both open for business Monday night. Kilpeck said personnel have been working to make sure the businesses have what they need to open if at all possible.
“The goal is to get these businesses back online and open as soon as possible,” he said. “I told the guys to do whatever we need to do.”
Kilpeck said Sheri Sullivan of Sheri’s Diner, and Beth and Bernie Carr of Carr’s Florist and Gifts were working hard to try and re-open their businesses Tuesday.
ROUTE 7 DETOURS
As of Tuesday morning, non-local southbound Route 7 traffic was being diverted north of downtown Brandon from Route 7 onto Ferson Road in Leicester to Town Farm Road to Country Club Road and getting back on Route 7 just north of Wood’s Market south of town. The route was reversed for traffic coming north from Rutland.
While local traffic was being diverted to Pearl Street to Maple Street to Union, Maple was partially shut down Tuesday for repairs. The road has been reduced to dirt as crews work on a water line project, and Markowski was making repairs to re-open the road later on Tuesday.
Officials will also assess the town office building to make sure it is safe. None of the town’s vital records have been affected by the flood.
Police Chief Brickell was awed by the destruction he saw after the storm.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Updates on Brandon town infrastructure will be posted on the town website, www.townofbrandon.com.