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In Irene’s aftermath, ‘It’s a different world’

Recovery will be painstaking for tiny Colrain, officials say

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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COLRAIN - Before Irene, the North River murmured its way through the center of this small hill town on the Vermont border, with depths barely knee-high.

But after the tropical storm dropped nearly a foot of rain in just half a day last weekend, the river roared over its banks and even the streets beyond.

From her porch, Julie Hall saw the water rise with terrifying speed, and she and her husband quickly gathered their two children and tore off in an all-terrain vehicle to higher ground. Since then, the Halls have lived without power and clean water, in a town broken into pieces amid a slew of washed-out roads and bridges that have trapped dozens in their homes.

“We’ve been living like refugees,’’ Hall, 50, said from her front yard yesterday, staring at the mud and debris strewn along the riverside street. “I never thought I’d see that here. We were preparing for wind, not water.’’

Four days after Irene unleashed its fury on the region, towns like Colrain were still reeling from the damage, and remained dazed by the storm’s ferocity.

“There was a river running down the mountain,’’ recalled Linwood Rowland, a 75-year-old who lives near the North River in the center of the town of 1,800. “And the North River rose almost to the bridge.’’

“I’ve never seen so much water,’’ said his wife, Sandra. “And so fast.’’

The flood waters receded almost as quickly as they came, but not before they inundated homes and severed entire neighborhoods from the rest of town.

“The rivers took this town for everything it had,’’ Kevin Prior, regional planner for the state’s emergency management agency, said yesterday as he surveyed the damage. “It’s a different world now.’’

Flood waters may have contaminated the town’s water supply, so a boil-water order is in effect pending tests to confirm it is safe.

Emergency crews have scrambled to repair roads and deliver supplies to stranded residents in this area of rolling farmland and fields of wildflowers, and the situation has improved steadily through the week. Almost all homes have regained power, and many flooded roads are now passable.

Officials have checked on stranded residents by phone, and in some cases delivered water to them by driving off-road.

Yet as a preliminary damage assessment team discovered yesterday on a tour of the area, recovery will be painstaking. Led by Scott Sullivan, the town’s emergency management director, state and federal damage inspectors documented damaged bridges, vital roads turned to rubble, and homes on the verge of toppling into swollen rivers.

Near the Vermont border, the Green River had swallowed long stretches of a dirt road, stranding the smattering of residents alongside.

“I’m looking at four more miles of this,’’ Sullivan told the group as they looked at a 400-yard stretch of road reduced to rubble. Along the banks were matching rows of flattened trees.

The town was particularly vulnerable to a heavy flood, residents said, because of its many flowing waters, and the many roads that follow them.

“Brooks and bridges, we’ve got a lot of them,’’ said Muriel Russell, 66. “That didn’t help us this time.’’

Many people have been forced from their homes and are staying with family in the area or at a Red Cross shelter set up at a local school, residents said. Even homes that survived intact will require massive cleaning.

By the North River, Ava Hunkler’s basement was mired in more than foot of mud and silt. “A river ran through it,’’ she said.

Most residents do not have flood insurance, and have no idea how they will afford repairs. The damage team’s assessment will help determine whether the town and residents are eligible for disaster assistance.

Even as some residents returned to their daily routines yesterday, the storm’s impact remained stark.

By the North River bridge over the road to Vermont, bulldozers removed piles of rocks and dirt. At the fire station, which served as a base for emergency officials and a National Guard deployment, the Red Cross dropped off water and cleanup kits.

Emergency officials said the town had rallied admirably. They were grateful, many said, that no one had gotten hurt.

If the winds had been as strong as forecasters feared, the damage could have been catastrophic. And since Sunday, it hadn’t rained, although late yesterday afternoon thunder began to rumble.

Residents say they have made a point of looking out for one another this week, making phone calls to check up on those who live alone and bringing elderly residents food and water and other essentials.

They express deep gratitude for the people who have come from elsewhere to help, and have posted a sign in the town center that reads “Thank You To All Emergency Crews.’’

After everything they have been through, people are looking forward to the town’s 250th anniversary celebration later this month. It will feature a group rendition of “Good Night Irene.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at pschworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Globepete.