Recovering from Tropical Storm Irene

Vyto Starinskas photo

Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 9/8/11.

What a difference a week makes.

As I stood in line at the Rutland Food Co-op last Sunday morning waiting to buy my iced coffee, like I do every week on my way in to work, I paused for a moment to reflect. A week ago (almost to the hour) I was standing in the exact same place.

At the time, Irene was barreling up the East Coast, but while it was rainy, the Category 1 storm that hit New York seemed like it would sputter out into some high winds and moderate rain by the time it reached us.

The night before, my friends and I gathered at my apartment to for a hype party of sorts. We made hurricanes, turned on Fox News to enjoyed Geraldo Rivera’s over-the-top coverage and Mayor Bloomberg’s bilingual press conferences.

While we did not fault anyone for taking the appropriate precautions, we couldn’t help but scoff at the media’s typically panicked tendencies.

In Rutland on Sunday morning, the rain was steady, to be sure, but it showed no sign of what was in store. By mid-afternoon, however, word started trickling into the newsroom that some of Rutland’s low-lying neighborhoods were flooding and Clover Street was being evacuated.

Fearing for the downtown, which in recent years has been a magnet for flood waters, one of us took a stroll outside to inspect the scene. Water was flowing where it needed to go and the transit center was dry.

Our photographers had been out in the field all day and by later afternoon they were calling in with increasingly troubling reports. Finally, one of them returned around 4 p.m., with photos from Route 4 in Mendon.

I was speechless. The road was gone. Just gone.

Things started moving quickly after that. As news came in from Brandon, Clarendon and beyond, we realized that Irene had saved her worst for Vermont.

Between working, I began re-posting photos and videos as they popped up on my Facebook feed — each new image a bit more dramatic and unbelievable.

Then, the lights went out. The newsroom was in darkness. Not missing a beat, we scooped up all available laptops, sent people home to get more and regrouped in a conference room at Rutland Regional Medical Center where we finished putting out the Herald and the Times Argus — several reporters and editors hunched over laptops working furiously under a fast-approaching deadline.

All the while, we took turns monitoring the social media conversation as well as moderating the live blog we had set up for the storm. We investigated and reported as fast as we could: Chittenden Dam was safe; Patch’s Dam wasn’t going to burst; Route 7 in Clarendon was cut off; Brandon was under water.

By the end of the night, I was in a daze. Everything I saw seemed unreal. Surely, this didn’t really just happen.

The next morning was no better. The light of day laid bare the full extent of the damage. Despite the terrible flooding on the western side of the city, which by itself would be significant, Rutland fared far better than the dozens of town that were now completely cut off. Pittsfield, Killington, Stockbridge, Rochester, Plymouth and many others were islands — Routes 4 and 100 had been eviscerated. People were stranded.

Back in Rutland, we were dealt an additional blow when news of the Garofanos broke. While Irene hit all of Vermont hard, this was an especially difficult blow for our city. And Rutland was not alone in suffering such a loss. My thoughts are with the other communities who are also mourning residents right now.

On Monday night, my friend Katye Munger and I met for a drink downtown. Aside from the topic of conversation, things seemed to be returning to normal. But they weren’t.

We both expressed a feeling of helplessness. For the last day and a half, I had been consumed by the images I was seeing both at work and on Twitter and Facebook. We parted Monday, agreeing to sleep on it and see what we could do to help.

Meanwhile, halfway across the country in Ohio, Rutland ex-pat Aaron Kraus was feeling equally motivated and helpless. He started the Restoring Rutland Facebook page.

Tuesday morning Katye had a plan. By afternoon, she was collecting food. It started simply enough: provide a location in Rutland where people could donate food and supplies for flood victims. (On Friday, we had expanded to coordinating cleanup teams in the city and sending people door to door with cleaning supplies and water conservation tips.)

By the end of Tuesday, we had connected with Aaron, and had a website and logo on the way from Castleton resident Dave Jenne.

With that, Restoring Rutland was born.

I stopped in at 34 Strongs Ave. to volunteer after work on Tuesday to help and soon realized that Katye had created something that was far bigger than any one person could handle.

So I went all in, offering whatever support I could as long as she needed it. Several more of our friends did the same. We became a well-oiled, volunteer-coordinating machine.

Calls were made and soon we were hauling truckloads of food to the Chittenden Fire Department, who in turn, were making runs into Killington and Pittsfield, with food going to Stockbridge, Rochester and anywhere else where there was a need.

By Thursday morning, we were working with Casella’s to fill roll-off containers destined for Killington and later to Plymouth.

The outpouring of support has been astounding. Individuals, organizations, businesses and whole communities have come together to help their neighbors. Since Restoring Rutland opened, it has been humming with activity. People from as far away as Iowa have shown up with cars full of food and supplies.

And we’re not alone. That same week, our friends Lyz and Eric had launched the “I am Vermont Strong” T-shirt campaign, with all proceeds going to the Vermont Food-bank . (You can order one at The response to what started out as a viral campaign on Facebook has been remarkable; in the first 24 hours they sold 1,000 shirts.

The day after Irene struck I felt numb and emotionally drained. A day later, I was inspired and energized by the selflessness and generosity this community.

And it’s not just Rutland All around the state, similar efforts are underway, and it makes my heart swell. have always been proud to be both a Rutlander and Vermonter, but after Irene, have come to love this place in a way I never thought could.

I have so much more to say about this, and will continue next week.

You can learn more about Restoring Rutland at www

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