In Vt., raging waters isolate communities

By Bryan Marquard and Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / August 30, 2011

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MONTPELIER - Flooding that officials compared to Vermont’s worst natural disaster isolated entire cities and towns, closed main roads across the state, and killed at least three people.

Heavy rains from what had been Hurricane Irene caused rivers to overflow, taking down utility poles, flooding basements, and cutting off power to tens of thousands of homes. The violent waters washed away picturesque covered bridges and crested above marks set by the 1927 floods that are the measuring stick for all Vermont disasters.

“It was worse than we could have imagined, frankly,’’ said Tom Donahue, president of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, which serves an area of the state left almost entirely isolated. “It’s once-in-a-lifetime damage - hopefully. I really feel everyone was prepared, but I don’t think you could have been fully prepared for something of this magnitude.’’

Orange traffic cones were as common as cows in parts of Vermont yesterday as work crews dealt with washouts along about 260 local and state roads and highways.

Among them was Route 4, the main east-west route across the center of the state, which runs through Rutland and past the Killington ski resort. Central Vermont Public Service, one of the state’s largest utilities, will take the unprecedented step of hiring a contractor, in collaboration with the state, to build a narrow bypass into Mendon from the west until the state highway can be restored, said Steve Costello, a spokesman for the utility.

Crusty mud drying in the hot sun turned some stretches of highway into minidust bowls as 18-wheelers attempted improbable U-turns to steer clear of road closings, while chunks of broken trees and debris festooned small bridges over tiny streams grown suddenly muscular.

Sue Minter, Vermont’s deputy secretary of transportation, said officials closed 30 state bridges and an uncounted number of municipal bridges. Many were washed away, she said, and others remain in place but await inspection by engineers to be deemed safe.

President Obama declared the state a federal disaster area yesterday. By the afternoon, a dozen communities remained inaccessible by road, and even the state’s emergency management headquarters was evacuated, forcing officials to relocate from Waterbury to Burlington.

“We haven’t seen flooding like this, certainly since the early part of the 1900s,’’ Governor Peter Shumlin told The Associated Press. “The areas that got flooding are in really tough shape.’’

The bodies of three people were recovered from flood waters and a lake, and a fourth person was still missing last night.

Michael J. Garofano, 55, supervisor of the Rutland Water Treatment Plant, and his son Michael G. Garofano, 24, disappeared Sunday as they checked the city’s reservoir in the neighboring community of Mendon.

The body of the elder Garofano was found yesterday morning, said his brother-in-law Frank Urso.

“We need a miracle,’’ Urso said of his still-missing nephew.

“I’ve known the family personally for 35 years,’’ Mayor Christopher Louras of Rutland said. “I don’t have the words to convey the loss to the city, the community, and the family itself. It’s an absolute tragedy.’’

A woman died Sunday after falling into the Deerfield River while watching the flooding in Wilmington, in the southern part of the state. Mark Bosma, spokesman for Vermont Emergency Management, said the body of the woman, whose name was not released, was recovered. He also said the body of a man in his 40s was found floating in Lake Rescue in Ludlow.

Restoring emergency and utility access to the dozen communities isolated by the storm is a priority, Minter said.

Inspection and reconstruction of roads and bridges is underway, and many roads could reopen this week, she said. But temporary or full bridge reconstruction could take several months or longer.

Though damage occurred statewide, it was concentrated in southern Vermont and came after an unusually snowy winter and rainy spring.

The state’s largest utilities said more than 35,000 homes and businesses remained without power yesterday and many may not see electricity restored for days or weeks.

Tim Tuttle, spokesman for the Rutland Police Department, said about a quarter of the city “was under mandatory or strongly urged evacuation. Right now, we have whole neighborhoods still without power because the basements were flooded.’’

Utilities prepared for Irene by summoning hundreds of trucks and workers from as far away as Ontario, Missouri, and Texas, but they have been unable to reach many downed poles and wires because of road outages.

“Despite an army of people, there are just simply dozens of villages and hamlets that we can’t get to,’’ Costello said. “It’s probably going to turn out to be - if not the worst - one of the two or three worst storms in our history in terms of damage.’’

Louras said flood plain maps prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed that waters in the area were at a level expected from a storm that would occur once every 500 years.

“We went from the confines of a 100-year event to the confines of a 500-year event in about an hour and a half early yesterday afternoon,’’ he said.

The storm was less harsh in northern Vermont, where powerful winds, rather than rain or flooding, caused much of the damage, said Dotty Schnure, spokeswoman for Green Mountain Power.

“We kind of lucked out here in Montpelier,’’ said James Quinn, deputy chief of the Fire Department in the state capital.

The Winooski River spilled onto State Street, half a block or so from the State House. But city workers replaced so many culverts after floods earlier this year and did so much precautionary cleaning in advance of Irene that the damage was less than in May.

Officials declined to estimate how much it would cost to address the storm damage. To prevent accidents, Bosma encouraged people to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary, and to be patient waiting for their power to be restored.

Amid talk of Vermont’s 1927 floods, the picture in much of the state is surreal, he said. Among other signs of the extraordinary, Red Cross workers traveled from becalmed Florida to assist with a tropical storm in Vermont.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at; Eric Moskowitz can be reached