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Goodnight, Irene! August 28, 2011

Posted by littlebangtheory in Art and Nature, Love and Death.
Tags: , , ,

Irene paid us a visit here in Charlemont, Massachusetts, and though her winds were nowhere near hurricane force by the time she dropped in, she dumped massive amounts of rain on our area, causing flooding the extent of which hasn’t been seen ’round here since 1938.

We woke this Sunday morning to find the Deerfield river (directly across Route 2 from our house) roaring like an Eastbound Train; it was nearly up to the road, despite having what is normally a very tall bank.  We’d managed to purchase a small generator on Saturday evening and set to work running extension cords to crucial areas of the house in case, as was predicted, we lost power.  Of particular concern was the sump pump dug into a pit in our dirt-floored cellar – if the storm was a bad as we were expecting, we could expect to need it.  The last time we lost power was during Spring thaw, and we got three feet of water in the basement before I rigged an alternate power source for the pump.  We lost our furnace, water pump and hot water heater.  It was an expensive episode, and one not to be repeated by lack of foresight.

Sure enough, the lights went out sometime late morning, about the time the seeps in the cellar turned to trickles, then freshets, then torrents.  Our little generator purred into action, powering the pump, chest freezer and a small light downstairs and, intermittently, our refrigerator and modem upstairs; we wanted to be able to keep abreast of developments regarding the weather and emergency alerts.  I’d also picked up a cheap ($6) corded phone at the Dollar Store on the way home from work on Friday; our cordless phones would be useless without household power, and we hadn’t yet found a generator at that point.

The biggest remaining casualty of the loss of power was running water, hot or not; our well’s pump is hard-wired into the breaker panel and can’t be powered by a generator without substantial work by an electrician.  As an alternative I’d filled eight gallon jugs with potable water and a five gallon can for flushing toilets, and Lizz and Holly had lined the house’s drip-line and down-spouts with more five gallon pails just in case.

With the power out and the generator running we checked our systems and, satisfied with their efficacy, walked across the road in a drenching rain to see how the river was doing.

It was doing this:

In case you can’t read that sign, here it is in all its prescient glory:

Excuse the photo quality, that’s a really hard crop of a photo taken in the rain.

Seeing the river so far into the woods (and so close to the road) made us a little nervous, so we hopped into Lizz’s truck to go see just how bad things were getting.  We only got two hundred yards from the house before we came to this:

That’s two feet of flowing water; we gawked for a bit then turned around.

We got farther going eastward, but not much; a bit over a mile down the road we were stopped by a more sinister sight:

The river, out of the frame to the right, was over-topping a small levee in crashing waves more worthy of a seascape.  There’s a dumpster in the distance, floated into the middle of Route 2 and sunk in five feet of water, along with a car which was no longer visible ( if indeed it was still there!)

We headed back toward home and took a series of small back roads up over the hills looking for a way out – if things got much worse, we might need it.  One possible escape route ended at a massive washout, with a ten foot deep gap between us and a new bridge:

That photo was taken through a plastic bag, so sue me if it sucks.  😉

Another attempt ended on a small dirt road, where we were told there was a big crater up ahead with an overturned truck in it.

Lizz and I pooled our collective knowledge of the area’s roads and pieced together a complex route that eventually got us back to Route 2 beyond the east-side flood.  What we found there was a heartbreaking series of submerged corn fields and homes:

…and lots of places where the road was very close to closed.  We stopped to take a few photos, and were met with the sight of trees being uprooted and swept away:

There were massive standing waves where tranquil trout waters normally are this time of year.  At one point the water was well above road level, held back only be the debris piled behind the guard rail.

We continued eastward to see how Shelburne Falls was faring, but as we passed a State Trooper he chased us down.  We stopped, of course (hey, we’re grown-ups) and he told us that if we turned right around we could go home, but if we left, we wouldn’t be allowed back.  We though of Holly at home and the generator and sump pump, and did a u-turn.

On the way back we asked a local fireman who was manning a road-block, if he knew how Shelburne Falls was doing.  He was glum in his response: the Bridge of Flowers had been overtopped long ago.  The entire village had been evacuated, with most of the downtown homes and businesses in deep water.  Local manufacturing legend Lamson Cuttlery was abandoned when their machines went under, likely never to resume production.

Stunned, we retraced our route back through the hills and arrived home as the rain ended and patches of blue began to appear in the sky.  The sight of them was so incongruous in light of the news we’d just received.

A few hours later, the water to our west had receded enough to get through, so we headed into Charlemont to see how our own little town had fared.  Again, we were met with bad news – the elementary school and fire station had both been flooded, the sewerage treatment plant was submerged and inoperable, and all bridges out of town were closed or badly damaged.  Rice Oil and Propane’s Charlemont facility was destroyed, explaining the dozens of huge propane tanks we’d seen floating down the raging river amongst the picnic tables and patio furniture and back yard decks.  Everything near the river was destroyed or damaged beyond salvation:

Zoar Outdoor, a whitewater rafting and kayaking outfit, had lost their equipment barn and several vehicles, including this one, which was washed into the middle of Route 2:

A truck of theirs was reportedly last seen being squeezed under the Route 8A bridge headed for Salmon Falls.

That’s not the Deerfield in the above photo, by the way.  It’s Legate Brook.  The actual river is out of the picture to the left.

We also learned while in town that massive mudslides had closed another portion of Route 2 a couple miles farther west, and that the weight of the debris from this swollen torrent had damaged a bridge way down river, closing Interstate 91 south of Greenfield.  And that the dam on Harriman Reservoir up in Vermont, where all of this water originates, was in grave danger of failing, which would send a wall of water down the valley estimated to be fifteen feet more than we’re currently seeing.  With no way for most of the area’s residents to evacuate, we’re praying that doesn’t happen.

This is one of the most destructive and heartbreaking events I’ve ever seen in these parts, and yet, miraculously, there has as yet been no loss of life.  I guess there’s that to be thankful for, at least.

During the writing of this post the power has come back on, the sump pump is running and we’ve had a hearty dinner of last night’s leftovers, and  I feel like the luckiest man alive.

Now, if I can only find a way to get to work tomorrow.






1. beatgrl - August 29, 2011

Wow, I’ve been camping and had no idea this was happening. Glad everyone is safe so far.

2. clairz - August 29, 2011

When I saw a flooding Bridge of Flowers on the news, I started checking for any updates on your blog. This is really heartbreaking. Stay safe, please.

3. Bob - August 29, 2011

Wishing continued safety to you and yours.

4. jomegat - August 29, 2011

Wow. I hadn’t heard of any significant damage in MA – all the news reports talk about Upstate NY and VT. We escaped without any significant damage here in NH. A tree came down in the woods (the stump is on my neighbor’s property, but the tree is now on mine). We lost power for 20 minutes. Other than that, nothing to report!

5. littlebangtheory - August 29, 2011

Folks, thanks for the well-wishes. The reality of the situation is indeed dire, but still, it’s somewhere between the worst of what we’d been told and No Big Deal. Post with more first-hand info to follow, as soon as my internet connection cooperates.

6. Laurie B - August 31, 2011

Hey, Thanks CR for the posts. We love living in our part of this world and it’s no great discovery that we all live with Mother Nature. If she’s not pretty, she sure is spectacular. You have my email, If you all need it and I can buy it and deliver it, send me the shopping list.

7. littlebangtheory - September 1, 2011

Laurie, that’s the realist response ever, but I’m not in need at this point. We were right there on the front line, watching others’ lives and dreams flush by, and somehow paid very little.

There are many in southern VT and the Catskills/Adirondacks of NY who lost everything, including loved ones. If you’re inclined to help, look into helping them. They really do need it.

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