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In cut-off Vermont town: Exposed coffins and smashed houses

Three days after the remnants of the hurricane deluged Vermont, a little town in the Green Mountains remains in the dark, its 1,000 residents leaning on each other — and waiting.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Coffins lie exposed at the village cemetery, having popped out of the ground. Homes are reduced to what look like piles of giant matchsticks. A weathered brown house hangs precariously out over a creek, an enormous chunk of soil underneath chewed away by floodwaters.

The roads are covered with brown dirt left behind when the muddy water receded, and when a truck or car passes by, it kicks up a dust cloud like a stagecoach in a Hollywood Western.

The decking of a collapsed bridge protrudes from the White River, "R.I.P." spray-painted on the debris.

Three days after the remnants of Hurricane Irene deluged Vermont, this little town in the Green Mountains remained in the dark and unplugged Wednesday, its 1,000 residents leaning on each other — and waiting. For food, for lights, for Internet connections, for telephones, for roads safe enough to drive in and out.

"It's like an island," said Penny Parrish, who owns the Skip Mart convenience store. "It's like one of those movies, 'Armageddon.'"

"The scary part was worrying about if we'd run out — of food, fuel — and then what?" said Amy Wildt, pushing a stroller with 2-year-old daughter Katie in it down Main Street. "The isolation is the hardest part."

Rochester surprised by storm
The storm hit on Sunday, surprising Rochester as it did the rest of landlocked Vermont. Floodwaters washed out sections of Route 100 — the main road through town — and rolled through the cemetery, uprooting caskets. Houses and possessions were left buried under a shroud of dried mud. A house with a brick-red roof lay on its side, as if someone had leaned his shoulder against it and tipped it over.

"We underestimated the power of this storm," said Tim Crowley, a school principal whose 19th-century farmhouse on the edge of town was inundated.

It soon became clear that no one was going anywhere. The isolation bred frustration, but mostly cooperation.

Unable to refrigerate food, The Huntington House and The Cafe restaurants, the convenience store and a supermarket began giving it away. Townspeople pulled together to build a plywood pedestrian footbridge over the river, replacing the lost Route 73 span so people coming from the west could park and walk over it and into town. Dozens showed up — unsolicited — to help Crowley pull all the ruined furniture, books and appliances from his house.

Rochester is a cosmopolitan town for a place so far out in the country. It has a burgeoning technology and publishing industry and a lively arts scene, and a number of artists, writers and professors live here.

With no newspapers, Internet or CNN, people are relying on one another for news from the outside world. That or driving or hiking up the mountain to get a cellphone signal and call out.

At 1 p.m. every day, they gather in the Federated Church of Rochester — a white New England-style meeting house with a short steeple — for a town meeting, getting updates on the state of repair work from Vermont State Police troopers and town officials.

Four dialysis patients had to be taken out by helicopter and two other people needing medical attention were driven out Tuesday in four-wheel-drive vehicles after road crews managed to restore enough of Route 100 to make it passable for emergency vehicles.

Relief is coming in now, though. National Guard helicopters made several drops of ready-to-eat meals and blankets beginning on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, bright orange Central Vermont Public Service Corp. trucks began rolling in on the dusty road, a sign of electricity to come. It could take three more days, said Town Constable Mark Belisle.

"When we saw the first CVPS trucks this morning, it was a sight for sore eyes," said Crowley's son, David Crowley.

Parrish got the town to lend him a generator and a pump so that his store's gas pumps — out of commission without electricity — could start working again. Now, the store is selling gas in 10-gallon allotments to people hungry for it to use in portable generators.

What young mother Wildt looks forward to most is having tap water again in her home up on a hill above town. She is toilet training her daughter, but to save water during the crisis, she has to stop the little girl from flushing.

"'Don't flush the toilet' is a concept we're battling," she said.