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Helicopters rush aid to Vermont towns isolated by hurricane-damaged roads and bridges

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

(Photo)
National Guard troops stack emergency provisions Tuesday in Colchester, Vt.
(Toby Talbot ~ Associated Press)
NEWFANE, Vt. -- National Guard helicopters rushed food and water Tuesday to a dozen cutoff Vermont towns after the rainy remnants of Hurricane Irene washed out roads and bridges in a deluge that took many people in the landlocked New England state by surprise.

"As soon as we can get help, we need help," Liam McKinley said by cellphone from a mountain above flood-stricken Rochester, Vt.

Up to 11 inches of rain from the weekend storm turned placid streams into churning, brown torrents that knocked homes off their foundations, flattened trees and took giant bites out of the asphalt across the countryside. At least three people died in Vermont.

"I think that people are still a little shell-shocked right now. There's just a lot of disbelief on people's faces. It came through so quickly, and there's so much damage," Gail Devine, director of the Woodstock Recreation Center, said as volunteers moved furniture out of the flooded basement and shoveled out thick mud that filled the center's two swimming pools.

As crews raced to repair the roads, the National Guard began flying in supplies to the towns of Cavendish, Granville, Hancock, Killington-Mendon, Marlboro, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Rochester, Stockbridge, Strafford, Stratton and Wardsboro. The Guard also used heavy-duty vehicles to bring relief to flood-stricken communities still reachable by road.

The cutoff towns ranged in population from under 200 (Stratton) to nearly 1,400 (Cavendish).

"If it's a life-and-death situation, where someone needs to be Medevaced or taken to a hospital, we would get a helicopter there to airlift them out, if we could get close to them. A lot of these areas are mountainous areas where there may not be a place to land," said Mark Bosma, a spokesman for Vermont Emergency Manageºment.

There were no immediate reports of anyone in dire condition being rescued by helicopter.

But it took a relay operation involving two ambulances and an all-terrain vehicle to take a Killington woman in respiratory distress to a hospital in Rutland, about 13 miles away, after floodwaters severed the road between the two communities, Rutland Regional Medical Center President Tom Hubner said. The patient, whose name was not released, was doing fine, he said.

In Rochester, where telephones were out and damage was severe, people could be seen from helicopters standing in line outside a grocery store. McKinley said the town's restaurants and a supermarket were giving food away rather than let it spoil, and townspeople were helping each other.

"We've been fine so far. The worst part is not being able to communicate with the rest of the state and know when people are coming in," he said.

He said government agencies did a good job of warning people about the storm. "But here in Vermont, I think we just didn't expect it and didn't prepare for it," he said. "I thought, how could it happen here?"

All together, the storm has been blamed for at least 44 deaths in 13 states. More than 2.5 million people from North Carolina to Maine were still without electricity Tuesday, three days after the hurricane churned up the Eastern Seaboard.

While all eyes were on the coast as Irene swirled northward, some of the worst destruction took place well inland, away from the storm's most punishing winds. In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin called it the worst flooding in a century. Small towns in upstate New York -- especially in the Catskills and the Adirondacks -- were also besieged by floodwaters.

In Pittsfield, Vt., newlyweds Marc Leibowitz and Janina Stegmeyer of New York City were stranded Sunday along with members of the wedding party and dozens of their guests after floodwaters swamped the couple's honeymoon cottage. The honeymooners narrowly escaped in a four-wheel-drive rental car just before a bridge behind them collapsed.

More than a dozen of the 60 or so guests were airlifted out by private helicopters on Tuesday.

Vermont emergency officials and the National Weather Service warned before the storm about the potential for heavy rain and flooding. On Thursday, Shumlin recommended stocking up on enough food, water and other supplies to last three days.

On Tuesday, the governor defended his state's decision not to undertake extensive evacuations before the storm arrived, noting that it was too hard to predict which communities in a rugged place like Vermont would get hit.

"You'd have to evacuate the entire state," he said.

Approximately 260 roads in Vermont were closed because of storm damage, along with about 30 highway bridges. Vermont Deputy Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said the infrastructure damage was in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Relief supplies arrived at Vermont's National Guard headquarters early Tuesday in a convoy of 30 trucks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Accompanied by Shumlin, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate toured the state by helicopter Tuesday to survey the damage.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at news conference in North Carolina that she was unaware of anything federal authorities should have done differently in Vermont. She said FEMA and its state counterpart worked closely together, and she noted that after the state agency operations center got flooded out, it moved into FEMA's quarters.

William "Breck" Bowden, an expert on Vermont's watershed at the University of Vermont, attributed the disaster to a combination of factors: The soil was wet, Vermont's steep hills quickly fed the rainfall into streams, and the storm dumped a huge amount of water.

"There was plenty of warning being given about the coming storm by the meteorological community and the news media," he said. "The real issues are the enormous damage to our infrastructure. That's nothing an evacuation could have done anything about."


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