Vermonters reach out and pitch in

Guardsmen, volunteers assist many stranded

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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KILLINGTON, Vt. - A Chinook helicopter flown by the Illinois Army National Guard dropped from the clear mountain sky yesterday morning onto the Pico ski area’s dirt parking lot, kicking up a dust cloud that rose high above treetops.

A forklift operator unloaded pallet after pallet, each bearing cases of prepared meals and 20-ounce bottles of water, and set them on a newly bulldozed expanse that had been knee-deep in water Sunday.

From there, the supplies from the third emergency airdrop in three days were ferried to distribution centers for this town and neighboring Bridgewater, Mendon, and Pittsfield.

“They call, we haul,’’ First Lieutenant A.J. Hager said as he watched the forklift empty his helicopter. “That’s the catch phrase in the Chinook world.’’

Flooding from Tropical Storm Irene imposed a new reality on those who live in Vermont towns that found themselves temporarily isolated. Residents take nothing for granted, neither food nor gasoline nor long drives to stores, schools, and friends. Families in homes cut off by flood-battered private roads awaited the arrival of emergency aid, some of which came via Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters in Killington and elsewhere.

From the sky to trails through woods, everyone from the military to area residents pitched in to bring provisions to areas with limited or no highway access. Riding all terrain vehicles, volunteers carted supplies and even the occasional FedEx package over a trail that circumvents the closed part of Route 4 in Mendon.

Emergency officials also set up a system to get medicine to people who can’t leave or want to stay in their homes. Residents call pharmacies in Rutland, and the supplies travel through Mendon to the Killington Fire Department, where they can be picked up in the afternoon.

“That’s been entirely a volunteer effort,’’ said Suzie Dundas, who is directing media relations for emergency efforts in Bridgewater, Killington, Mendon, and Pittsfield. “Everybody in Rutland and all the surrounding communities have been extremely helpful.’’

The Rutland Veterinary Clinic is even sending a veterinarian into the cut-off towns tomorrow to tend to pets, “and he’s going to stay until he’s not needed any longer,’’ Dundas said.

Scott Bradley, Mendon’s director of public safety and emergency management, said about 100 people in town still do not have road access to Route 4, but officials have made contact with nearly everyone. “We’ve been able to have face time with everybody, or at least one representative from each road,’’ he said.

Others in these mountain towns finally escaped with their vehicles early yesterday morning after four days of not being able to take the road to the west.

At the intersection of Route 4 and Journeys End - a road just north of the gaping washout that trapped hundreds of people - cars, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks gathered before 8 a.m. for the first exodus by residents past the washout in Mendon that closed Route 4 to all but emergency and utility vehicles.

They ventured into neighboring Rutland, where many work, on the condition that they couldn’t drive back, because officials still can’t predict when Route 4 will open for through traffic and bring normalcy back to lives upended by the storm.

“We’ve lived through nor’easters, but there’s been nothing like this,’’ said Lisa Shaddock, who lives with her family on Journeys End. “It’s scary because you don’t know how long you’re going to be trapped. You feel isolated and helpless. We were prepared for a storm, but not for this.’’

She brought a sport utility vehicle to leave on the other side so she can drive to her job, and will hike around the washout, morning and night, to and from home.

Getting a car out was a luxury, she acknowledged, given that on Sunday, when the storm hit, her family was so isolated by a flooded driveway that “our daughter-in-law in California was texting us photos of what was happening a mile and a half down the road.’’

Several cars back, Stephen and Anna Montanez, who also live on Journeys End, were driving to Rutland for work and running errands for those who remained behind.

“We’re actually taking some mail out for a neighbor who needed to pay some bills,’’ said Stephen, who added that they left phone numbers with neighbors in case anyone needed something from Rutland.

While many, like Shaddock and her husband, Chris, plan to walk to and from their cars and home each day along a trail at the end of Journeys End, others left with no idea when they would return.

“I’ve lived here my whole life, 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ said Kristi Champine of Mendon, who packed her 9-year-old son, Brady Fenton, and the family’s cat and two dogs into an SUV to stay with relatives in West Rutland. “My husband packed yesterday to go to work at GE. He hiked out with his work clothes.’’

In the past couple of days, officials began letting some residents in and out of Bridgewater, Killington, and Mendon on Route 4 east, toward Woodstock. Other than yesterday’s early caravan, Route 4 remains closed to residential traffic west into Rutland, where most back-and-forth work commuting takes place.

“This is our main artery, half of us work on one side or the other,’’ said Lynda Hunt, who drove into Rutland on Sunday morning and initially couldn’t get home to Killington. She walked up the mountain and back into town Tuesday. “It’s our groceries, it’s our gas, it’s our doctors, it’s everything.’’

Mendon children in kindergarten through eighth grade attend the Frederic Duclos Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden. That presented a challenge parents met by setting up car pools on either side of the big washout on Route 4.

On the mountain side, parents bring children to Journeys End, where they walk through woods on a path, marked by orange surveyor’s tape, that is wide enough for a four-wheel all terrain vehicle.

On the downhill side, other parents take the children to Route 4, where a bus brings them to school. At least initially, parents said, the children see the logistics as adding adventure to school days.

“They think it’s fun now,’’ said Rebecca Hussak, who lives in a Mendon house that still has no vehicle access, “but I think the novelty is going to wear off next week,’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at