NEWFANE, Vt. – National Guard helicopters rushed food and water Tuesday to a dozen cut-off 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. Approximately 260 roads in Vermont were closed because of storm damage, along with about 30 highway bridges.
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.
Airlines said it would be days before the thousands of passengers stranded by Irene find their way home. Amtrak service was still out Tuesday between Philadelphia and New York because of flooding in Trenton, N.J. Commuter train service between New Jersey and New York City resumed Tuesday, except for one line that was still dealing with flooding.
But while all eyes were on the coast as Irene swirled northward over the weekend, 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.
“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 (Vt.) 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 cut-off towns ranged in population from under 200 to nearly 1,400.
“If it’s a life-and-death situation … 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 Management.
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.