Local roads, cars swept away as rescue workers kept busy

Sunday August 28, 2011

BENNINGTON -- The remnants of Hurricane Irene failed to produce expected high winds but wreaked havoc on local waterways Sunday, collapsing a bridge in Woodford, washing out multiple roads and requiring numerous boat evacuations throughout the area.

Southern Vermont was battered by heavy, sustained rains, causing the Roaring Branch and Walloomsac Rivers to overspill their banks. The furious waters washed away banks and trees, and at least one vehicle on the Roaring Branch. Police and fire personnel scrambled to evacuate people Sunday afternoon as the water continued to rise and increased in power.

Emergency officials said flooding would continue into the day Monday.

A 15-foot span over the Roaring Branch on Route 9 East collapsed late Sunday afternoon. Nelson Blanchard, district transportation administrator for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the road, a main artery into Bennington, will be closed indefinitely.

"I have no idea at this point. We're going to have to get down there tomorrow morning and reassess. We've got so much damage," Blanchard said. "We'll have to come up with some sort of temporary bridge."

Bridge inspectors from Montpelier will be called upon to examine the structure, he said.

Roads and bridges across southern Vermont were suffering significant damage, he said. "I've been through a lot of these events in my career and never been through one like this," Blanchard said.

A main water main underneath the bridge that carries fresh water to the town from the water filtration plant in Woodford also broke. Town officials said 3 million gallons of water is stored in tanks, which is expected to last for about two days. They are urging residents to conserve as much water as possible.

Officials feared the retaining wall along the Roaring Branch near the intersection of North Branch and County Streets could give way. Two large sink holes opened up along the wall, and town highway crews scrambled to fill them to help reinforce it. Police and fire personnel evacuated the area of all residents and a large crowd of people that had gathered to watch the river churn.

Crowds were a problem

First responders dealt with crowds of on-lookers repeatedly through the day.

Trees felled by the river backed up under the Park Street bridge. The bridge could be felt "shuttering" from the powerful water, said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette.

Meanwhile, water from the Walloomsac River poured onto Route 67A near the Paper Mill Bridge, washing out the road and requiring boat evacuations. Four firemen on a rescue mission there went under water along with the person they were helping. They were later pulled from the water, but one fireman had to be resuscitated, according to officials. Police said the fireman was transported to the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

The Walloomsac also washed away part of Silk Road near the Silk Road covered bridge. The fast moving waters moved concrete barriers.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said late Sunday afternoon that Bennington and Windham counties were hit hard by the heavy rains, and counties to the north were bracing for the same.

"This is everything we hoped would not happen. Bennington and Windham County are an example of what's happening throughout the state," Shumlin said. "Every brook, every river, every lake is flooding. The message I'm sending out as loud and clear as I can is, ‘This is devastating. We can rebuild and replace roads, we cannot replace life.'"

Shumlin urged people to use extreme caution and stay home. He said a young woman watching on the shores of the Deerfield River was swept away in Wilmington.

"We have a missing person in Wilmington that fell into the Deerfield River that we're extremely worried about. We cannot get rescue vehicles into Wilmington right now," he said.

The National Weather Service out of Albany, N.Y., reported four to eight inches of rainfall in the area, with higher localized amounts of up to 10 inches which led to flooding throughout Bennington.

The parking lots of Chilis, Hannaford grocery store and the Hampton Inn were under several feet of water. Several cars were nearly fully submerged. The North Bennington Fire Department Cold Water Rescue Team evacuated employees and guests at the Hampton Inn.

The CVS and Aldi grocery store, as well as Walmart and Price Chopper parking lots were also under water.

Bennington town officials declared a state of emergency in Bennington at 3:24 p.m. Most roads leading out of Bennington were closed, including major thoroughfares like Route 67.

Route 7 is open north, south

Route 7 North remained open as an avenue for those seeking refuge at the American Red Cross shelter at Mount Anthony Union Middle School. More than 100 residents had taken refuge there Sunday and the shelter had run out of cots.

"Basically, Bennington, except going north, is cut off," said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette.

Flash flooding became the primary concern for local rescue officials, and a mandatory evacuation in Woodford was ordered early in the day after the Woodford dam threatened to overflow and the Roaring Brook surged over its banks, flooding homes all along Harbour Road and Route 7 East.

First responders evacuated residents from various low-lying areas throughout Bennington during the day. Crews from New York were called to Vermont to assist.

Route 7 East was closed early in Wilmington, as were many major and minor roadways throughout Bennington County. The extreme weather came in doses during the afternoon, the area at times appearing calm in between renewed squalls.

"The trees are just falling one after another," said one responder as riverbanks eroded, causing trees lining area waterways to topple.

Mark Bosma, public information officer for Vermont Emergency Management, reported "serious flood problems" and flash flooding in all areas of Vermont. He said that along with extremely heavy rain, winds with 55 MPH gusts were taking down trees and power lines.

Bosma said that flash flooding would continue into the day Monday.

Throughout Sunday, multiple vehicles were reported swept out of driveways and into yards, roadways, and down engorged rivers. First responders' initial reports indicated that some looked occupied, but those reports turned out to be incorrect.

Trees knocked down power lines and transformers causing a fire in the woods behind Mount Anthony Union High School shortly after 1 p.m. At the peak statewide, more than 40,000 residences were without power, including more than 5,000 in Bennington County and nearly 12,000 in Windham County, Central Vermont Public Service reported.

CVPS Spokesperson Christine Rivers said that the company was working with Vermont Emergency Management to prioritize road repairs. "Customers who know they are in severely flooded areas should prepare to be without power for several days," she said.

"Restoration efforts are completely dependent on the reopening and rebuilding of roads, as many roads are simply gone," said Joe Kraus, CVPS senior vice president of engineering, operations and customer service. "We have a tremendous number of outside crews from as far away as Texas to assist us with repairs, but we're being stymied by blocked roads."

Most area bridges -- if they were not washed away -- were closed due to eroding banks and flooding. Two full-sized propane tanks were reported bobbing down the Roaring Branch from Woodford. One was spotted later hung up in branches along the river.

Bennington and Windham counties were placed under a tropical storm warning by the NWS in advance of the weather system's arrival Sunday.

Shumlin praised rescue crews throughout the state for their efforts during the storm.

"I'm so grateful to our emergency responders, the Red Cross, the National Guard," he said. "They're doing a great job, but this is big and we're small."

Washington and Rensselaer counties in neighboring New York were under the same warning. More than 100,000 were reported without power in the New York Capital Region, but National Grid reported only scattered power outages throughout Rensselaer and Washington counties.

Those areas were still greatly affected by flash flooding along waterways large and small.

Areas further north were placed under high wind warnings initially, later turning into flash flood warnings.

After a lull in the early afternoon, Bosma reported heavy rains heading north and said that the situation would "repeat itself in most counties in Vermont."

Bennington was spared the brunt of the storm but was among the areas hardest hit in Vermont -- second only to Windham County to the east. Surrounding states including New York and Massachusetts issued states of emergency over the weekend in preparation for the storm. County officials declared a state of emergency in Rensselaer County.

After intermittent rain beginning late Saturday, residents awoke Sunday to extreme weather, with the weather pattern covering the entirety of New York and New England that morning.

In anticipation of the storm, state and local officials cautioned residents to heed their warnings and prepare for the worst. Residents stocked up on emergency supplies including batteries, flashlights, water, and nonperishable food items in preparation for extended power outages more typical in this area after snow and ice storms than tropical weather.

A Bennington Rescue Squad ambulance crew was deployed over the weekend to New York City as part of a Federal Emergency Management Authority task force to assist in evacuations there.

A boil water advisory was issued for the town of Manchester after a suspected water main break Sunday on Richville Road.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com and Zeke Wright at ewright@benningtonbanner.com.


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