Irene’s Eye – in remembrance of 28 August 2011

Irene set her sights on our small Vermont village of Wilmington, quite an unexpected course.  Her eye, however, allowed some things to be seen more clearly, and other issues to be blurred.  For our family, as well as our community, it was a multilevel watershed.  It brought to focus who we are and how, beneath daily trappings, we work together from the same foundation.

It rained all night the 27th.  Our friend MaryAnn called early Sunday morning to see if we were still up for brunch.  Intrepid as always, my husband, younger daughter and I set out for Chimney Hill around 9:00am.  Passing Manyu’s Boutique where Jadria worked when not at Bates College, we called Manyu to say we would come help move everything out of the basement after brunch . . . she should meet us there at 11:00 as there was sure to be flooding.

In just one hour of a most delicious brunch, the Deerfield River rose 7 feet.  By 10:15 water was flowing into the boutique’s main floor office window above the river, as well as through the picture windows on Main Street.  We could not get home; all seven routes leading there were either dangerously flooded or completely washed out.

Grateful the three of us were together on the same side of the river, Joseph, Jade and I spent the day and evening as refugees in the home of dear friends.  We walked down to the flooding in absolute shock over the destruction of Dot’s where we ate breakfast the week before, and the complete absence of the Ann Coleman Gallery.  Our architectural firm designed the interior renovations the contractor nearly completed the day before.  The building, super-insulated to it’s 6” concrete foundation, floated above the turbulence of the Main Street river that looked like a rough part of the Colorado and ended up in the lake.  In a need to connect, Jade called her sister in Oregon.

One structure brought a wan smile to our faces.  Jade whispered to Jaslyn, the River Bank Park arbor was standing.  One section of the railing was gone, the trees were uprooted, but the arbor was undamaged, laying to rest any questions of its structural integrity which had surfaced during construction.  Moreover, its weight saved the antique retaining wall upon which it was built, containing the river in that particular section.

Able to make it home 12 hours later, we slept, kind of.  By 5:00am Joseph was offering his services to the National Guard, structurally inspecting the historic village buildings to determine if owners could safely enter their buildings.  By noon Jaslyn, physically three thousand miles away in Portland, yet psychically with us all in Wilmington, started the Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Relief Support Network on Facebook that garnered 500 members that first day, eventually growing to 1400 members supporting each other with information.


Our community gathered in the center of town that gorgeous Monday, staring at each other and our village in disbelief.  Although one could depict the destruction through words and videos, the palpable energy of utter devastation was indescribable.

Yarn from HandKnits was strewn about town, reminding us of our interconnectedness, linked together in a web of life. The feeling was strong that the negative bickering our town had been experiencing would fall away as we worked together to rebuild our beautiful town. The yarn was a symbol, a reminder of this important reality:  we are all connected to each other in a multitude of ways.

After a day of shock on Monday, the community flew into action Tuesday.  Jade and I decided we could start cleaning up the River Bank Park, have something in the center of town to signify our community was not completely broken.  Assisted by friends, family and Wilmington’s Beautification Committee, the trees were righted, bricks stored, stones put back in place.  Jadria then moved on to orchestrate the transfer of Manyu’s mud filled Boutique contents to our home.  That afternoon a crew of 5 started the rinsing and washing which lasted a full week.

Ten hour work days for the next ten days:  cleaning, sorting, assisting others.  Joseph began his report on the state of the historic district’s 59 buildings.  I was asked to give FEMA representatives a tour of the area.  Jade divided her time between “Manyu’s North” at our home, and getting ready to go back to school.  Jaslyn and I drew up basic guidelines establishing a fund to assist our community’s most vulnerable members and others; the Deerfield River Valley Human Web was named in honor of that yarn.


That first week truly was “Where Amazing Happens” as noted on signs, T-shirts and sweatshirts that popped up around our village.  People who did not talk to each other the previous month were not only working together, but assisting each other.  Jade and a friend assisted with the cleaning of Beanhead’s, a place where those who disapproved of the River Bank Park arbor design often gathered.  Our community was strengthened.  There was a feeling of euphoria coming though the destruction.  We truly felt all connected, not only metaphorically through the yarn.

Based on Jaslyn’s initial directions, I finalized the creation of the Deerfield River Valley Human Web with the cooperation of Merchant’s Bank.  Twice Blessed, a community organization who has assisted people in need for years, graciously allowed the Human Web to come under their 501c3 umbrella.  Megan Russell, Andy Childs and Jennifer Betit-Engel joined us to create a committee for grant making decisions.  Within a week donations were being deposited; within 10 days we were granting funds to individuals and families to keep them in town.

It felt great to be able to assist, especially those who had assisted us in the past.  It felt great to forge connections along different lines.  Everyone, it seemed, found their own helping niche:  ripping out sheetrock, delivering goodies to volunteers, driving garbage bags to the transfer station, the list was exhaustive.  Wilmington really was where AMAZING happens.

Soon, however, exhaustion also figured into the equation.  The unfettered giving to others, that heady sense of community, subsided a bit.  Squabbles surfaced.

Anger ripped through Wilmington regarding clean up contractors from out of town swooping in and being hired in irregular circumstances, over skilled locals.   Once again, misinformation started to seep through the valley.  Historic artifacts were trashed.  Someone tied a strap to an upright of the River Bank Park arbor, the other end to a vehicle, and tried to pull it down.  As if there was not enough destruction in the center of town. . .

Four months out now, we are rebalancing, businesses are opening.  We, our community, are pulling it together a bit more quickly than anticipated.  The world at large is astounded at our resilience.  We are a stronger community for coming together, rebuilding a new normal.  That experience of being connected has remained.

The Human Web received over $200,000.  Many donations came with their own stories, such as the siblings on Higley Hill who was collecting money for a family trip to Disney but sent it, instead, to their neighbors via the Human Web.  Youth from up and down the east coast sent in profits and photos of their lemonade stands.

Second Home Owners showed their dedication for the area both in terms of clean up efforts and their bank accounts with contributions to the various funds for local infrastructure and businesses. Significantly, second homeowners provided over 2/3 of the Human Web’s funds. Second homeowners literally pulled money out of their pockets to keep our locals in their homes.  Local businesses, including Mount Snow, GS Precision, Merchant’s Bank and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center all made significant contributions as well.

Over 100 households received Human Web grants.  They represented a cross section of our community.  A few were used to asking for assistance, but they were the minority.  The majority of grantees had never previously asked for, nor accepted, help; true Vermonters who were used to sorting things out on their own.  If privacy were not an issue, each grantee would rest assured s/he was among Deerfield Valley’s most independent, most proud, most stubborn.

The goal of the Human Web was to keep our community together, recognizing that each one of us has a contribution.  Jaslyn penned a note to accompany the grant checks:

You are receiving this assistance because you are a valuable member of our community.  We want to support your ability to stay in town and continue being a part of making the Deerfield River Valley a wonderful place to live.

These funds are made up of donations from your neighbors who weren’t affected as badly, from second home owners who feel this Valley is their home, and from people who have visited and stayed at our inns on a semi-regular basis watching the area grow and change.  Donations are from people who were born here and now live across the world as well as from people who have never been here, but know how devastatingly difficult it is to lose as much as our valley did.

This is not a loan; it is a gift, and an affirmation of the existence of the magic of love.  Thank you for being here.  We value your place here and the role you fill in this community.  We are all connected.

Here’s to what’s to come!

The gratitude of individuals and the community in general inspired us to raise more funds.  Early December, I wrote a Grant garnering another $5,000 from the Vermont Community Foundation and continued other fund raising efforts.

The Human Web closed down the last day of 2011.  The funds raised served to accomplish what we set out to do, keep our community together, as noted in this letter:

 I would like to thank everyone involved with the Deerfield River Valley Human Web for your assistance during the extremely difficult period following the flooding brought on by Hurricane Irene.  Your help made it possible for me to remain not only in Wilmington, but at the same address I have occupied for the last five years.  This was very important to me because though born and raised in Georgia, I very much love my adopted home and the people of Wilmington, VT, and would not want to live anywhere else.  Your organization and the people of Wilmington have made this possible for me, and I would like to again express my sincerest appreciation for not only all you’ve done for me, but what you’ve done for Wilmington and the entire Deerfield River Valley.     Again, thank you very much,

Recipients repeatedly acknowledged how Human Web grants allowed them to stay in their homes, keep their vehicles, and otherwise tide them over until businesses rebuilt or the snow brought in winter work.

It truly was everyone working together.  The major landlords in town all agreed to accept 80% of rent while the Human Web was paying.  This was over and above their other contributions to our community in dollars and deed after the floods.

In the end, Irene was a lesson for us all, a reminder of the connections we share as members of humanity.  It is important, if not vital, for us to keep that oneness in mind.

Irene let individuals realize that we are a community as a whole.  She blurred the pettiness that kept differences in the forefront.  She clarified the similarities that strengthen us.

Many of us are convinced we will meet the challenge Irene provided and move forward to economic stability in a renewed sense as demonstrated by numerous initiatives folks are working on to ensure this happens.

Irene brought into focus who we are as a family as well as who we are as a community.  Underneath our differences there is love, and respect for how we each contribute differently to our community, working together from the foundation that we are all in this together.

January 2012

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2 Comments on “Irene’s Eye – in remembrance of 28 August 2011”

  1. Carol Ann Johnson Says:

    Beautiful. Thank you. Will forward on to my brother in CA.
    love, Carol Ann, Peter, Evan and Harrison
    XXO

  2. Ann Coleman Says:

    What a pillar of this community your family is. From you I gained so much strength from all your guidence with what was accomplished with the Ann Coleman Gallery. Your steadfast support helps give me clarity, and light, and strength to move forward. My gratitude and love for you runs deep.
    Smiles & hugs,
    Ann


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