In Pittsfield, Recovery Has Been More Difficult Than Days After Irene

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In the weeks after Irene hammered so many small towns across Vermont, Pittsfield became an example of a community coming together.

Flooding along Routes 100 and 107, cut local residents off from the rest of the state for weeks.  Many parents sent their children to live with other families so they could go to school.  

But residents pulled together, sharing news and giving each other support at a daily barbeque on the town green.

The recovery has been more difficult than the immediate aftermath of the storm.

It’s the lunch rush and the Pittstop, a local deli, gas station and mini grocery is crowded

Owner Roger Stevens greets customers like he’s hosting a party.  So it’s not surprising that he helped organize the now famous post Irene barbecues. 

"It was not so much the food, but the community every day," he said. "A lot of people I know called me and everybody else in this town and said ‘hey, we’re going to come there and we’re gong to get you out of there.’  And I think we all had the same thought.  Where would we want to be?  We might not drive out of here for a while and we might not smell too good because our laundry is not done, but this is really where we want to be so we’ll have lunch together."

That sense of togetherness helped many in Pittsfield with the destruction all around them.  Marion Abrams stands on what used to be her lawn.

"We’re in the yard behind my house right by the branch of the tweed river that runs behind my house," she said. "And you see our yard and you see this river and it’s shocking to see.  But our house is still standing."

Right after the storm, when no one could get in or out and cell phone service was down, Abrams says an amazing thing happened in Pittsfield.

"People just did what they were able to do –  everybody, you know – immediately," she said.

The guys with excavators and tractors went to work moving debris; people with medical skills did their thing; restaurant owners cooked, parents set up a school on the green.  Erica Hurd stands on on the town green and points to where she cut hair in what jokingly became Salon Irene.   

"It brought comfort to people, ‘cuz I’m the shrink with a sink," she said. "So people started talking and it gave them a chance to relax and have some quiet because we’d been running at such a high level for so many days."

Marion Abrams remembers seeing a neighbor drive a backhoe onto her property to move some rocks a few weeks after Irene.  Another storm was coming and people knew her home was vulnerable. 

"You watch the news and you feel like everybody is out to get everybody else," Abrams said. "And I felt like – people are good and this is so good for my kids to see that when you see that your neighbor needs help you just step up and you just do it."

Roger Stevens says he and his wife Joyce moved to Pittsfield from the Caribbean where hurricanes are all too common.

"And I’ve lived through this a couple times," Stevens said. "And Joyce and I had the discussion that wow, now it’s four or five days later and its’ going to start to get ugly.  At the meeting in town people are going to start to want to know why we don’t’ have services from the National Guard or why we don’t have services from FEMA. That never happened."

Not until later.

"Six months. Spring came," Abrams said. "And there was a lot of arguing in town all of a sudden."

Marion Abrams says after the snow melted, the abandoned homes were still there and the wounds still raw.

"And I heard that a lot of the flood affected communities had a lot of arguing in town when spring came," she said. "That was kind of when reality hit.  No one from the outside was thinking about the flood victims anymore."

The bickering passed she says, but things still aren’t back to normal.

"People here are really proud of the way town handled stuff but people are also struggling a lot more than they say and it’s a lot harder than people probably realize," she said.

Especially for people like 75-year old Evelyne Payette. Her abandoned mobile home lies broken and bent on the side of the road as you drive into town.  

Payette lifts her 9-year-old dog out of her car and walks carefully across broken glass, rocks and dirt.

"Well this was my home, for 15 years," she said.

Through a broken window, you can still see cheerful wallpaper with brightly colored fruits and vegetables. 

"That was the kitchen, that was my bedroom over there," she said. "And then along the hallway, where that window is cracked out – that was the small bedroom."

Payette now rents a single room in a retirement house in Rochester.   She also works there as a cook.   Her hands begin to shake as she talks about trying to make ends meet paying her new rent along with her old mortgage.   She may qualify for FEMA aid- but she and others in town are still waiting for the money.

"Well they told us it would be at least May," she said. "And then they said June or July. And now we heard that it was going to be November. It’s going to be winter before things are settled with the buyout and whatever else."

Payette pauses as a dark car pulls up.

"Just checking," the driver says. "OK. How are ya?"

"I’m doing fine thank you," she explains.

"That’s the sheriff," she says as the car drives off. "He checks this place because he’s had people go in.  They want a treasure from Irene so they go and ransack the homes."

"Can you believe it?" Payette asks as she walks slowly back to her car. 

Local residents are planning a town-wide celebration in Pittsfield August 26th to both remember the damage caused by Irene and to celebrate the towns’ response.  Congressman Peter Welch and Governor Shumlin are expected to attend.

Evelyn Payette’s eyes fill with tears and she shakes her head.  No, she says, she doesn’t think she could bear it.

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