White River Valley towns bounce back from Irene

GRANVILLE/HANCOCK — These days, business is good at the Old Hancock Hotel, which sits on Route 100 mere yards from the bridge that rising waters swept away on Aug. 28, 2011.
That’s not to say the past year hasn’t been a struggle for Diane Isaacson, who runs the hotel, restaurant and bakery. As Tropical Storm Irene passed through and the rain turned brooks to raging rivers that swept through houses and fields, Isaacson’s basement was inundated, her water and power supply destroyed.
Hers was a similar refrain to many in the White River Valley, where Irene demolished bridges, washed out roads and left Hancock, Granville and Rochester — along with 11 other towns around the state — cut off from outside access by road.
That day, Dave and Jan Bagley left their Lower Granville home as the water rose, striking out for Rochester. Just a few miles down the road, they were stopped by water and turned back, taking refuge at the Granville town office until the storm subsided. Meanwhile, the house was inundated by floodwater, coming up two feet high on the first floor and ruining dishes, furniture and appliances.
“Oct. 4 would have been 35 years since we bought that house,” said Dave Bagley, who is 61.
The Bagleys had flood insurance, and were able to rent a house in town for several months. Between flood insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) buyout program, which pays individuals who own property in flood plains to relocate, they were able to close on a new house on Dec. 22.
“We’re up on the hill, out of the flood plain,” Bagley said.
But though Dave Bagley said he’s been assured that he and his wife are approved for the buyout, he said FEMA says the whole process can take up to three years, meaning it could be some time before the couple gets the payment for their last house.
Being stuck in the middle of the process, he said, is difficult.
“It still bothers us,” he said. “I wish we could get it done, but it takes time.”
The couple also couldn’t move from house to house with all of their pets, so they had to find new homes for their four cats and two dogs.
“The animals were the hardest things to give up,” said Jan Bagley, who is 54.
But it wasn’t easy coming to terms with just how much was destroyed in the flood, either.
“Losing some of the things was hard — pictures, things like that,” she said. “We’ve been married so long, it had accumulated.”
Now, though, the Bagleys are settled in their new house. Jan Bagley said there are still boxes to unpack and sort through in the garage, but it’s a relief to know that with the next big storm, they’re not at risk of being flooded out again.
And, said Dave Bagley, he considers himself lucky.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do for a while, but it’s worked out good so far.”
Though Isaacson, at the Old Hancock Hotel, applied for low-interest federal business loans to rebuild her well, she said she simply couldn’t get any financial assistance.
“I didn’t get anything from insurance, and I couldn’t show any ability to repay a loan,” she said. “It was very frightening.”
The pipe leading to her well led under Route 125 and the Hancock Branch of the White River, and that and her power line were both destroyed. She began looking for other options, submitting a request to the state to find out if she could drill a new well nearer the house.
In the meantime Isaacson was trying to clean out her basement, rescue appliances, clean linens and dry out paperwork that had been inundated, all the while living in the building with no electricity or running water.
That’s when the donations started to pour in.
It wasn’t just money, she said. People in town brought food and buckets of water to help clean the house. Volunteers arrived to muck out the basement. A master electrician and his son-in-law from Newport came down and helped get her power line fixed. A group of Middlebury College employees put in sheetrock. Efficiency Vermont sealed a sill around the building’s foundation.
All this, said Isaacson, was without her asking.
“It’s very hard for people to ask for help, but so many people just helped, without my saying I needed it,” she said.
At the same time, Isaacson got some money from various local relief funds, and Ripton’s Robert Wagner organized a benefit in October to raise money for well repairs and a new boiler.
But as fast as the money came in, Isaacson was spending it on repairs, which continued to add up. By December, she said, she had spent all of the money and still didn’t have a functioning well.
Then came a major anonymous donation, which allowed her to go in and repair the old well — it turned out the well was not washed out, as she had initially feared.
Isaacson was able to reopen the Hancock Hotel this past June, just in time for her busy season, which runs through the fall. She said since then, traffic has been steady at the restaurant, bakery and the hotel.
That, she said, is all thanks to everyone who chipped in.
“It really would not have been possible for me to reopen without all the help I was given,” said Isaacson. “People did whatever they could.”
Dan Sargeant, who opened the Granville General Store mere weeks after Irene swept through the valley, said his business is also doing well in the months since his planned Labor Day grand opening had to be postponed due to Irene.
When he opened in mid-September, it was with coolers that didn’t work and only limited supplies, given the continued difficulty of getting goods or technicians to the store. At the time, the main routes into Granville were still obstructed by flood damage, and entry from the north required long drives on back roads.
“(Business) is better than I ever expected, going into it the way we did,” said Sergeant. “I was kind of in a position where it was do or die.”
At the time, the then-21-year-old graduate of Vermont Technical College’s business management program — working with his mother, Cheryl, who happened to chair the Granville selectboard — said he was counting on the strong community that the flood had fostered to carry the store through the difficult opening time.
Nearly a year later, that hope has held out. With this past winter’s weak ski season, there was limited out-of-state traffic along Route 100, but Sargeant said he’s found his niche in stocking the basic necessities, and he’s branched out to bottle redemption; propane tank exchanges; and hunting, camping and fishing gear. He’s also working with local growers to sell produce grown right in the valley.
“We’ve expanded quite a lot since last year,” he said. “In this neck of the woods, there’s not a whole lot of competition.”
He’s also hosted bake sales and flea markets to raise money for local nonprofits, which he said has been key for the business — especially in light of Irene, Sargeant knows how important community support is.
It’s not been an easy year for the town — while most infrastructure repairs have been finished, Buffalo Farm Road is still closed. But there was a bright side.
“People who may have lived next door who we’d never seen before, we met for the first time during Irene,” Sargeant said.
On this Sunday, Sept. 2, Hancock residents will gather together at a potluck to remember the event that brought such devastation to the town and surrounding area.
But Shelley Twitchell, a member of the Hancock selectboard, said the meal won’t be a mournful event — there’s a lot to celebrate. The town will likely be celebrating the end to the final Irene repairs on Churchville Road by that point, and beyond that, she said, it will be an opportunity to recognize the sense of community that’s stayed strong in the town since those first days after Irene, when almost the whole town turned out to contribute food and cook communal meals at the fire house.
“Everybody just jumped in and helped each other,” said Twitchell. “In the time of a tragic event, everybody pulls together.”
This June, a number of townspeople came together to form the Hancock Town Pride Committee, which aims to hold events and activities, to beautify the town and to foster community spirit.
Jill Jesso-White, who took on the role of town emergency coordinator shortly after Irene, said she’s excited by the momentum that has held over from those days after Irene.
She’s also the chair of the Friends of the Hancock Free Public Library, and she said between that group and the Town Pride Committee, the goal has been to hold a community event every month, whether it be a movie event, a bake sale or a potluck.
And during last May’s Green Up Day, for the first time in a dozen years, community members turned out to clean up the town. Jesso-White said the 12 participants cleaned up tires and other flood detritus before finishing with an event at the town hall.
“People spent a lot of time together,” she said. “(They) were saying then, let’s make sure that we don’t lose that spirit. That’s really what’s driving these different initiatives.”
Now, she said, there’s even a plan afoot to convert the open field in front of Route 100, next to the fire station, into a town green with a gazebo for summertime concerts.
Jesso-White and others were quick to remind an observer that Irene was a tragic event. But out of that event, many have noticed a change in their community.
“It definitely brought a lot of us closer together,” said Dan Sargeant. “In a way, it was a good thing.”

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