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Jack Zaleski, Published September 04 2011

Zaleski: Fast or slow, floods bring sorrow

CHELSEA, Vt. - The difference between flooding in North Dakota and Vermont is speed. As devastating as flooding was this year in Minot and Bismarck, the floods were – as most North Dakota floods tend to be – slow-motion events.

In contrast, the aftermath of torrential rains from Tropical Storm Irene in this hilly state of rivers and streams was flash flooding that came so quickly no warnings could have come in time for residents of riverside towns to get out of harm’s way. There was no way anyone could have prepared for what turned out to be one of the worst flooding disasters in Vermont’s history.

Headlines in central Vermont newspapers told the story: “The wrath of Irene,” stated The Herald of Randoph; “Devastation in Royalton,” stated the Times Argus of Barre, above a dramatic photo of the crumpled remains of a house that had been carried downstream on the raging White River; “Valley responds, buckets in hand,” stated the Valley News of White River Junction, as cleanup and recovery began.

And so it went in a wide swath of Vermont from the White River Valley to the Connecticut River. The Connecticut is the border between Vermont and New Hampshire.

The damage along rivers and brooks, usually at rocky-bottom lows this time of year, is incredible. In one eight-mile stretch of the White River near South Royalton, I saw bridges and roads washed out, homes pushed off foundations, buses and trucks shoved into trees and mud plowed into 5-foot heaps along the roadway, which had been covered by the river’s floodwaters. When the water receded – almost as quickly as it came – the road, bridges and nearby properties were plugged by up to 3 feet of silt, rocks and splintered trees. Tens of thousands of trees were ripped from riverbanks and deposited in huge heaps – some 30 feet above the normal level of the White and Ottauquechee rivers.

Rivers had fallen considerably by Wednesday. Rainfall amounts in this area of the state ranged from 6 to 10 inches, and it came fast enough to generate flooding that compares only with “the legendary flood of November 1927,” stated The Herald at Randolph.

Again, the most startling feature of the Vermont floods for a Red River Valley flatlander is the forested, hilly, granite-based land here that is crisscrossed by hundreds of small brooks, larger streams and yet larger rivers. Unlike the Red River, which flows north down a slope of 6 inches per mile, the drop of flowing water here is measured in hundreds of feet per mile. When Irene dumped her torrents in just a few hours, the ensuing runoff created floods that were the worst in 84 years, when measured by the height of river crests and the speed at which the rivers rose.

As I marveled at the ugly, miles-long scar and heaps of broken trees, buildings and vehicles left by the White River flood, I was reminded of the damage wrought by the Grand Forks flood of 1997 and this year’s Minot tragedy. The people of central Vermont, embarking on a long recovery, now have an unhappy connection with North Dakotans.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com

or (701) 241-5521 after Sept. 15.