By Buffy Calvert
Herodotus doesn’t mention floods, you notice. Judy Garrison and I drove blithely down to Walton at 10 am Tuesday, June 27th , sloshing through about a foot of water as we drove into Delaware Street. We picked up the July Gazette for final proofing from the Reporter Company. They showed us the sandbags protecting the front door from water that had receded the night before, leaving a scum of debris. We carried our “baby” to T A’s Place and settled down with a snack, going over every word twice for errors. At 11:30 someone shouted, “The Reporter’s been evacuated!”
We figured we could drop off the corrected copy with Tom Coddington in Andes that night. Since people were saying that Route 10 going East was closed we queried every newcomer to find an alternative. I was encouraged by Judy’s encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain, as she suggested various Cloves and Hollows to pursue, unfortunately to be met each time by, “Yeah, you could get there, but after that the road’s washed out.” As the last trucker entered we all swiveled around expectantly. To our unasked question, he responded flatly: “You can’t get there from here.”
Nonetheless, T A ‘s bragged they had never been flooded. (“We’re the place they took the pictures from in ’96.”) So we ordered hamburgers. Suddenly, a rushing wall of muddy water swirled over the bridge, crossed the street, and engulfed the parking lot. Judy tossed a $20 bill to the owner and whisked her car across to the gas station, I after her, my too-long pants hitched up and my blue suede shoes plunging through the rapidly rising current. We sped uphill, looking for a way out and were blocked at every turn.
It came as a shock that what we needed was shelter. Aha! The firehouse, set well up on a hill. Unfortunately, on the banks of the brook where the dam just broke. So we and other refugees, (parents and kids from inundated houses, a woman who saw her barn swept away before her eyes and swam to safety roped to two EMTs, a former mayor with his wheelchair-bound wife) stood at the door and watched the angry, surging brook tear at the uprights of the firehouse pavilion, tumble it into the torrent and toss it out of sight; rip trees up by the roots, neatly turn them root end downstream, and hurl them like javelins into the abyss. Parked trucks on the other bank teetered on an ever-narrowing ledge.
Babies clung to their mothers; toddlers cried out in fear clutching their parent’s pant legs. “I don’t want to die!” shrieked one five-year-old, “Will this building fall too?” We adults soothed him but at some deep level he spoke for us all, voicing the part of us that wanted to cry out in terror at the power of Nature let loose.
A woman dashed in trailed by a passel of kids toting an aquarium full of fancy mice still whirling insouciantly on their treadmills, smaller cages for gerbils, and a backpack from which emerged a huge, wet, cat who dug his claws into the teenage boy in wild-eyed fear. They had waded down from a trailer just below the dam and generously shared their hastily packed video games with the other kids who were racing around in games of tag, settling to hang-man on the Squad blackboard and drawing curious grid patterns on sheets of paper cadged from some hidden stash. A sad-eyed pre-schooler colored listlessly in a dog-eared coloring book.
Judy and I discovered we could make calls from the boardroom. It was marvelously encouraging to be in touch with the outside world and home through John Gregg and Dot Andrews’ answering machine.
The raging torrent surged around the firehouse, cutting away at the foundations, threatening the parked cars and seeping under the doors to dampen the carpet in the dining/meeting room. At 5 or so, hot dogs, hamburgers, and tomato soup appeared on the table, accompanied by potato chips and soda. A serious mother admonished the boys earnestly that they would not grow up to be strong men on such a diet. They nodded and munched away. The children mirrored their parents’ attitudes. One mother kept reminding her sons that they were safe and that Daddy would find them. Her oldest chirped up, “It’s scary but I’ve made a new friend!” Another boy solemnly sorted out his peers in categories. “You’re in denial. You’re angry. You are in the bargaining phase.”
Firemen began to bulldoze debris aside to protect the parked cars. The Auxiliary worked tirelessly in the kitchen. Our ever-increasing crowd of refugees waited, shifting restlessly from the mesmerizing sight of the angry flood to the local TV channel’s ribbon of disaster news underneath the programs: “Towns of Hancock, Colchester, Walton closed… Curfew in Hancock…”. Until DEP police in black uniforms and red flak jackets took over the boardroom and darkness hid the world at our door.
At 9:30 a cry went up, “We’re being evacuated!” Two school buses with intrepid drivers arrived to take us to the High School. If we wanted to go. Families gathered their few belongings and said goodbye. We hesitated. What about Judy’s car? “It’s just a car,” she said stoutly. We climbed aboard.
Reassuring Red Cross signs and smiles greeted us as we signed in, then sat down obediently, glancing at the gym mats strewn on the (enviably huge) gym floor. After a while we noticed others coming in from the Home Ec. room with hamburgers and soup. We discovered that Wonder bread still sticks to your teeth and that, looked at properly, relish is a vegetable, just as Ronald Reagan said.
We also discovered that our fellow families had made pods with the available mats and that there were none left. The floor looked shiny clean, and hard. A young mother of three little boys, whose husband had indeed found them, came over to invite us to share their mat. She found a sheet to put over our corner. We lay down next to this beyond-belief generous family and slept. April and Alan, we are forever in your debt!
“One call, and make it short.” The Red Cross let us contact our families to say where we were. All night long rain had drummed ominously on the gym roof. Now the sun shone. Parents ventured onto the campus carrying tiny babies and surrounded by frolicking toddlers. In the gym people packed personal stuff on their mats and relaxed enough to stop ordering bigger kids not to play king-of-the-mountain on the bleachers. One set dealt out cards. Some stared into space. A doctor and nurse examined diabetics and the injured and triaged their treatment. A woman with a foot operation, rescued from her second story window by pay loader, was bruised and battered, but had wrapped her leg in plastic to keep the stitches dry. “Good for you. No treatment needed,” and the doctor moved on.
We kept the Gazette with us every minute. At least our “baby” didn’t cry in the night. Those that did were thoughtfully tended to quickly. One father of a six-month old and a perpetual motion machine, almost two, grew cranky as the morning wore on. Beneath the novelty and keeping up appearances for children and strangers lay a deep cloud of uncertainty: Was the house there? The job? Neighbors? Friends? Family? How long must we (could we?) stay? A refrain we heard on every side: “Way worse than ’96.”
We had entered a culture of dependence – for food – for shelter – for bathrooms – permission to move. We were grateful for all the kindnesses and railed against the strictures. We had no recourse from DEP cop’s flat refusals, however ill informed or arbitrary. Nurses who had been transported by DEP to work the night shift at DVH were not allowed to walk home over the bridge next morning, although people coming the other way were.
A school staff member opened the computer room so we could access our e-mail. He also plunked down on each table the latest program of the “WALTON HIGH-WATER CINEMA: OFFERING THE FINEST IN FLASH-FLOOD MOVIE ENTERTAINMENT!” Amazing how much your book-deprived reporters enjoyed “Beethoven” from 10:25-12 noon in the cushy auditorium. Meanwhile I had found a compatible charger for my cell phone. We could call out!
After lunch we walked down Stockton Street to see the bridge, up to its armpits in muddy river, barrels bouncing against the roadway. DEP kept everyone off except a little red pickup that backed across for bottled water donated to the shelter and hospital by the Big M and Hannafords. Walton’s entire water system was shut down. The blessed custodians used well water to occasionally flush our toilets and mop floors.
In the sunny sky helicopters buzzed, surveying damage, looking for stranded survivors, medivac-ing emergencies. Half of our half of Walton gathered at the bridge to see the devastation across the river, Delaware Street still several feet underwater, boats plying the swollen banks to haul folks off rooftops. The total bisecting of the village gave it an East-West Berlin feel.
Judy and I got talking to a couple who had been forced to leave their car on the other side the night before as they drove into town. (Paradoxically, DEP drove them to their house near the fair grounds while their Lexus on Gardiner Place filled up with mud, a total loss.). “Don’t sleep on the gym floor. Come stay with us,” they urged. An exchange of names revealed that Judy knew their niece! We gratefully signed out with our three cheery Red Cross workers who had not slept anywhere for 24 hours, thanked our gym-mat hosts who had just heard their deck had sailed away along with the boys’ bikes, the lawn mower, snow blower and deck furniture, and trudged down to the Morgan’s home on a friendly block. A glass of wine and homemade chicken soup (Carrots! Onions!), followed by soft beds and even a bowl of water to wash with (hauled from a neighbor’s swimming pool.) and much good conversation. John and Candy, we are forever in your debt!
Thursday, still marvelously sunny, the bridge finally opened at noon and we hopped aboard a pickup truck to drive past the devastation on Delaware Street. A floating dumpster had smashed the plate glass of the Reporter and the torrent cascaded through. At the fire hall, Judy’s car purred into action and carried us home over Cabin Hill and into Main Street where our Fire Department had pumped basements 40 hours straight. Andes looked like heaven on earth. But doesn’t it always?
Judy adds that combined with a sense of having betrayed her Andes for a second time by being absent during its flood, she feels a special bond with Walton and its people. Her radio, usually tuned to WSKG, has been tuned ever since she returned home to WDLA, as she listens for Ron Galley’s voice and news of Walton.