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Hurricane Irene clean up in Bethel Vermont

Hurricane Irene clean up in Bethel Vermont

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August 2011
[info]cathijosephine and I spent Friday and Saturday digging mud out of people's basements in Bethel. Helping people recover from a hurricane is far more satisfying than my job. It's also a much better way to exercise than a stationary rowing machine. And you meet awesome people.

I would say the town of Bethel is doing pretty well. They have fully stocked stores of every type, and have a bunch of volunteers coming in. The roads getting into town are fine, you don't need a 4x4 or anything.

I don't know about the 12 towns in Vermont that were at least partially cut off by flooding.

There was one house that was gone, collapsed except for its roof. The one next to it had maybe a third of its basement washed out from under it, along with an incredible amount of dirt. Many houses that are unbelievably still standing, with quantities of cleaning that very much require many hands.

I have thought a lot about what I'd need to get through an emergency. One of the things I learned this weekend is that I have not begun to prepare for recovering from an emergency.


I was very concerned that if Irene had just been farther East, the same damage could've happened to my home. Having been there, I agree with [info]zzbottom's assessment. Vermont is more vulnerable to this particular type of flooding because there is nowhere for the water to spread out and dissipate. You have rivers with a mountain on one side, and a mountain on the other side, and a tiny flat area where you build houses in between. So when you drop 11" of water on the state, you get impressive flooding. Last time they got a flood like this was 1927. This was the first time I heard the term "flatlanders".


On our way into town, the town looked pretty intact. To the extent we were kind of wondering if our help was really needed.

We were told to show up at the school from noon to 6pm on Friday, and somebody would be there to direct us to where help was needed. I expected the situation to be chaotic enough that there wouldn't actually be someone there right at noon, which is about when we showed up. I was right. But people at the school suggested checking at the Town Hall (confusingly labeled "Old Town Hall", apparently it became "new" again too recently to have been updated). It was nice that the town government got involved.

[info]cathijosephine was a great person to have around when diving into the chaos.

We eventually got to the right (Old) Town Hall, found Kirk, who has done some of the shoveling himself, and is the work volunteer coordinator, and got directed to River St. This is where there was a house missing. I do not understand how that bridge was still there. Big bridge. Way above the water. With debris on the street. We ended up helping the people who posted the facebook invite. When we asked if we could help, their response was basically "Well, it's really muddy." But that's what we came for. It was several inches deep when I climbed into the basement. There was a normal basement bulkhead at ground level. Just outside the bulkhead was the humongous hole in the ground. They were so lucky their house is still standing. Their long driveway was completely washed away. So we just shoveled mud out of the basement into the hole. I noticed there was a lot of insulation in the mud, and asked where it came from. The ceiling. That was about the level of the flood in that house. Later I noticed the inch and a half of mud on top of the furnace and boiler. Which were destroyed by mud.

Eventually a ramp was built up the stairs and we started shoveling into a wheelbarrow and pushing it up the ramp. I didn't think it would work, I didn't think we had enough space to get enough people on it to lift that much weight. I was very happy to be so wrong. A sawzall was used to increase clearance. It was still thick wet mud that stuck thoroughly to any containers though. We had two people pushing from the bottom, two people grabbing and pulling from the top, and two more leaning out over the chasm to scrape the mud out of the wheelbarrow. We eventually got two wheelbarrows going. It's incredible how much mud a group of people can move in a day. we got most of what could be scraped and squeegied up.

We spent the night camping in Kirk's field, which was great.

Saturday we worked on a house across from the school. Really mind boggling amount of water came through there. I think they said the water came three steps up from the first floor. Can you imagine the situation where it makes sense to hose out the floor in your house? I saw it. All their appliances were destroyed. Their refrigerator had been replaced. They had a dirt floor in the basement, but there were things that needed to be dug up so they were accessible, at least partially so the electricity could be turned back on. No bulkhead. The stairs got knocked out. So we shoveled into buckets, passed them up a ladder, and bucket brigade them out to the huge hole in the ground. fortunately this mud was much easier to work with, dryer, slid out of buckets and off shovels much easier. I suspect because the basement had a dirt floor, so it drained better. Then we put the stairs back in, and hammered more nails in till the steps would stay in place. Again, an impressive amount of dirt moved.

We decided two days of shoveling mud was enough for our bodies for a weekend, and I had a party I really wanted to get to, so we headed back to Boston.


I learned dust masks don't work with beards. And people really want you wearing dust masks when shoveling gunk out of basements.

Tools that were useful: Shovels, flat-head (not the big ones for snow) and pointy (for dirt floor basements), knee high rubber boots, work gloves, wheelbarrows, buckets, squeegies, brooms (normal and industrial), generators, work lights, sawzall, power washer (gas powered, hook up to a hose), fans (ventilation), dust masks, rain gear (which we didn't end up needing). I really liked the gloves we brought, mostly stretch fabric with rubber coated grip area - protects your hands, good grip while wet, and breathable.


The house that got knocked down had apparently been partially knocked off its foundation in 1927. The second house we worked at had its barn swept away in 1927, and rebuilt farther from the river by the Red Cross. Apparently with an impressive foundation, because it was the water whipping around the barn that carved their hole in the ground. With the sod peeled up and rolled back along the downstream edge.

It's fun to be regarded as big and strong.
  • So glad you're helping out those in need!! And I'm doubly glad the damage was not as bad as they were predicting. True, it was not good. But it could have been much worse ...
  • That is awesome! Go you for doing that!
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