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Vermont's unsung hurricane hero

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  August 31, 2011 08:06 AM

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WATERBURY, Vt. — As Hurricane Irene was washing away roads, covered bridges, power lines, and communications in my community and elsewhere in Vermont, we frantically sought news of the calamity that was unfolding all around us. But our disaster took place outside the camera shot of the national media. For a frightening 24 hours as our rivers rampaged, Vermonters turned to an old friend for sustenance, community, and lifesaving information.

On Sunday evening around 7 p.m., one of my neighbors in Waterbury told me that her family barely escaped the rising Winooski River by wading out of their house through chest-deep water. They had just reached high ground.

But when I checked the CBS Evening News moments later, I watched in astonishment as the head of the National Hurricane Center, with a sweep of his hand toward Vermont, declared that the danger had passed. The storm was over, and overblown. The national media, focused on New York City, missed where Irene hit hardest. Vermont simply didn’t exist.

As darkness descended Sunday, Vermonters, many of whom live in towns that remain cut off on all sides by the torrents, turned to one another, and to a familiar voice. WDEV, an 80-year-old family-owned independent radio station that serves the northern half of the state with local news, music, and Red Sox games, opened its phone lines and hearts to worried residents who told each other in real time what was happening around them.

A caller from Waitsfield reported that all roads in and out of town were flooded. “Stay home and stay safe,” he implored his neighbors.

WDEV staffer Tom Beardsley ventured outside the studio at 10 p.m. to find an elderly woman on Main Street in Waterbury struggling through flood waters to escape her home. “If there are emergency personnel in the area, we could use your help here right now,” he said urgently, finally signing off so that he could offer a hand himself.

All the while, WDEV was coping with its own disasters: flood waters were rising around its Waterbury studio, and the station had lost power and Internet communications. The radio station was kept alive by generators — and listeners. News director Eric Michaels gave out his personal cell phone number and urged listeners to call or text in information about where help was needed and how Vermonters were coping. Michaels, Beardsley, reporter Lee Kittell, station owner Ken Squier and meteorologist Roger Hill pre-empted regular broadcasting and stayed on the air for 24 crucial hours.

On Monday, I took a break from helping neighbors haul out the sodden contents of their flooded homes and stopped by the radio station to thank the unsung and decidedly unglamorous heroes of Hurricane Irene. The generator was still rattling like a chainsaw, and cords snaked through the windows and along the floor to power the vintage radio equipment, some of which looks like it has been in use since the station’s opening day. Amid half-eaten muffins delivered by grateful listeners, I ran into the irascible and irreverent Squier, looking a bit haggard from the long night. I marveled out loud at how the radio remained the essential source of information for countless Vermonters, despite the fact that broadcasters had little but their phones to connect with the outside world.

"We got our news from the people," owner Ken Squier, 76, replied matter of factly.

That, for Squier, is the point of media, and his lifelong mission. He has been an outspoken champion of independent media, and a withering critic of media monopolies. He has resisted numerous offers from media companies to sell his station, long insisting on the vital role that local, independent media plays in the life of communities. This is a media that builds bridges between people and gives everyone a voice, in contrast to the divisive role played by media empires owned by moguls such as Rupert Murdoch.

Hurricane Irene took away many things, including the false comfort that high tech communication offers. When the floods came, that old standby, the radio, became a lifeline, weaving a web between isolated communities and keeping peoples' spirits afloat.

As I shoveled mud out of my neighbors' flooded homes today, we were glad that the outside world and national media has finally discovered what happened to us in Vermont. Hundreds of roads and houses and dozens of bridges were washed away. But thanks to an old friend in the dark nervous hours of an epic storm, we never lost touch with one another.

David Goodman is a journalist and author.

AP Photo/Burlington Free Press, Glenn Russell: North Main Street in Waterbury, Vt., is underwater in the wake of tropical storm Irene.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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