The Ottauquechee River had always been part of the charm of the White Cottage Snack Bar. The seasonal Route 4 restaurant’s website entices customers with the promise of char-broiled burgers and whole fried clams enjoyed on the banks of a bucolic river where customers can splash and wade on a hot summer day.
When Irene dumped 7 inches of rain on Woodstock in a matter of hours on Aug. 28, 2011, the White Cottage’s docile stretch of the Ottauquechee showed another side. Runoff supercharged the river until it reached a flow rate of over 37,000 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Normally, the gauge downriver in North Hartland rarely tops 5,000.
The river punched a hole through the restaurant’s walls and deposited polluted mud where customers had enjoyed butterscotch sundaes just days before.
With no way to get to his business from his home — the storm had washed out 500 miles of roads in Vermont — John Hurley, the owner, watched later that day as a network news anchor broadcast from in front of his decimated restaurant.
“It took a while for me to wrap my head around it,” Hurley said. “I was really depressed, upset — whatever you want to call it. Distraught.”
The White Cottage was just one of hundreds of businesses that Irene upended as it swept north from North Carolina. In Windsor County, home to Woodstock and other particularly hard-hit towns, the Small Business Administration received 550 applications for business loans and 1,273 for home loans. The SBA’s low-interest financial loans often represent the greatest outlay of federal assistance after a natural disaster, but only 8% of the 6,463 applications from Vermonters were approved. Together, they received $30 million.
Across the border in New Hampshire, the destruction was not as widespread. About 15 Granite State homes and businesses qualified for SBA loans amounting to over $1 million.
Scott Noble did what he could to prepare the White Cottage Snack Bar for Tropical Storm Irene’s arrival. The longtime manager of the seasonal restaurant a mile west of town on Route 4 turned the refrigerators to their lowest temperature and pulled the original 1957 sign into a small shed.
He thought that would be enough to fortify the casual restaurant against high winds that never came. Wind speed makes the difference between a mere tropical storm and a hurricane, but Irene proved that rain did not need 74 mph wind to upend the homes or businesses in its path. The scenic stretch of businesses had transformed into an eerie wasteland.
Noble, a Woodstock resident and firefighter, took his bicycle on back roads to reach the White Cottage.
“There was a giant canyon from the center of the road down to the bedrock, (just) scoured. There was an enormous amount of deadfall piled up, so there were trees and roots and branches stuck to the building, sand and silt everywhere,” he said. “Just the smell of wet.
“The craziest thing was the quiet,” he added.
All down Route 4 leading out of town toward Bridgewater, small businesses suffered: The Woodstock Farmers Market, the Farmhouse Inn, the Vermont Standard and the propane supplier Dead River Co. took months to reopen. Most were able to salvage their structures, even if they needed drastic renovations.
Thrown off its foundations and its walls shattered, the White Cottage was a teardown.
The loss paralyzed Hurley, who recently turned 60. He had purchased the White Cottage when he was only 27.
“You just kind of wander around aimlessly when you get a shock — you don’t know where to start, where to begin, what to do,” Hurley said. “In my heart, I knew I was going to rebuild.”
He was worried that the state may put up roadblocks to his rebuilding plans. Instead, he found state officials eager to help. Four days after the storm, he applied for the state’s “rainy day fund” for small businesses. By the following week, he had secured a $100,000 loan at a low interest rate.
“It was basically like rebuying the business and starting from scratch as far, as the mortgage goes,” he said.
He had only 10 years left on his mortgage, and he had to sign on for another 20 years.
In hindsight, however, “it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
The old uninsulated wooden structure lacked not only a heating system but insufficient storage space as well. The rebuilt restaurant has a second floor where Hurley added an office and a roomy storage area so his employees no longer need to crawl on their hands and knees to retrieve a box of straws.
The new White Cottage has a lot in common with the original. With its leather booths and bright red and white paint, its interior would be at home in any production of Grease.
Miraculously, the 1957 sign, which has overlooked Route 4 since the White Cottage opened, landed downriver at the Billings Farm unscathed. Noble mounted it once more in its rightful place.
The rebuilding moved quickly, and Hurley did not have to delay the annual reopening in early May. After Irene, Noble said, “we were busier than I’d ever seen.”
If another storm does come, the White Cottage will be better prepared. It is 25 feet farther from the river, and its foundation was lifted 18 inches — not quite enough to spare it from the 4 feet of water that Irene brought, but enough to mitigate the damage. The state required these changes, but Hurley was happy to incorporate them as he rebuilt.
“Irene happened once; it can happen again,” Hurley said. “And things aren’t getting any better in the world as far as climate change.”
Up and down the Twin States, the tributaries of the Connecticut River sent torrents into the spine of the valley.
In West Lebanon, the Mascoma River took a shortcut: It cut across the shopping mall known as Kmart Plaza where Dan Hazelton had grown his optician business Pro Optical since 1980. As the Mascoma receded, it left a thick layer of sediment that dried into sewage-laden dust.
“It was a foot and a half of water through here, so the carpet was all gone. These are particle board-based,” said Hazelton, thumping one of the white tables where he and his employees adjusted eyeglasses. “So they all blew up. All the fixtures had to be replaced.”
His landlord was obligated to restore the “box” of the store — tear out the moldy ceilings, strip the floor to the concrete, replace the carpets and paint the walls.
Hazelton and his staff breathed putrid air as they took sledgehammers to the waterlogged office furniture.
His office manager transported soggy office records home and strung them up to dry on a clothesline to save them from mold. Although the sensitive equipment for making lenses survived, about eight computers were lost.
Hazelton said that he was fortunate that the expensive eyeglass frames for sale on the walls were well above the high water mark.
The city of Lebanon requires floodproofing on any large new construction projects in the shopping mall because it is in a flood plain. This year, the owner of Kmart Plaza, a real estate enterprise called The Davis Cos., is installing extensive floodproofing, including sump pumps and flood barriers, ahead of Target’s imminent arrival.
In 2011, though, these protections were not there to lessen Irene’s damage.
Hazelton was nearing 60 when Irene struck, and he briefly considered retiring. Instead, he reopened months before many of the bigger stores such as Kmart, which kept its doors closed until the spring.
With his revenue stream dry for 10 weeks, Hazelton had to lay off about 10 employees. Katie White, an optician at Pro Optical, found herself unemployed. She and her husband, who worked at a nearby Shaw’s grocery store, had just taken out a large personal loan to pay for medical expenses.
White called the company managing the loan and explained that a natural disaster had displaced her from her job. She had hoped her payments would be delayed, but all she was offered was a weekly payment plan. Her emergency unemployment payments started up quickly, but it wasn’t enough.
“Even if I was in a different financial space, I could’ve gone to Maine and visited my mom, but I didn’t have gas money. I had nothing,” she said. “What Dan (Hazelton) kept reiterating as we were going through it was ‘at least this isn’t our home.’ We still had a place to sleep at night. We were not as affected as some other folks.”
The graphite high water mark wrapping around a column in the middle of the store serves a double purpose: It memorializes Irene, and it’s the line that Hazelton and his staff use to know how high to lift their supplies and equipment when there is a flash flood warning.
Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727- 3242.