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Irene turned Colrain into ‘islands’


Greenfield Recorder 09/06/2011, Page A01


Recorder Staff

COLRAIN — “Bales gone,” said 2-year-old Conner Roberts.

Conner was referring to the about 160 hay bales that were washed away from the farmland that he and his family live and work on at Roberts Lane.

The floodwaters triggered by tropical storm Irene sent the East Branch River up over its banks, washing out roads and twisting guardrails like parts from an old Erector set, wiping away pastureland and sending those aforementioned bales floating away.

Connor’s mother, Samantha Roberts, 23, said the rate at which the water rose and overtook the farm was unbelievable.

Despite the proximity of the house to the river, Roberts said that there haven’t been any problems with floodwaters encroaching on the property.

Until Irene.

As the waters started to rise, Roberts and her family were in the finished basement of the house checking to make sure whatever equipment and items stored there were still safe.

Roberts said she and the rest of the family could feel the pressure of floodwater starting to seep under the floorboards.

She and her husband, Scott, moved the family’s vehicles to higher ground and got their personal effects out of the house, before heading to a neighbor’s house for shelter during the storm. Roberts said by the time the vehicles were moved, the current of the floodwaters that had jumped the banks were so strong, that travel back into the house wasn’t possible for risk of being swept away.

The family had about 20 minutes to get to safety, Roberts said.

About one-third of the pasture land was destroyed by the flood, Roberts said, and a large part of the farm’s corn crop was wiped out.

Farmworkers are now going through whatever part of the crop is left standing and trying to determine what, if anything, is salvageable, Roberts said.

She said that the family was under the impression that because the house is so close to the water, flood coverage was incorporated into their homeowner’s insurance policy.

That, however, isn’t the case.

Bearing that in mind, Roberts said the family was pleased to hear that federal disaster relief money may be available to help them get back on their feet.

Harold Brigham, 83, has had a front-row seat for the two great floods in the county, Irene and the flooding that crippled the region in 1938.

From his porch, on ground high enough to avoid flooding from either the West Branch or East Branch rivers, Brigham can show you where floodwaters crested last week.

From his home, which overlooks Route 112, Brigham pointed out the low-lying flat section of road that was about three feet underwater, he estimated.

Brigham was asked how long it took floodwaters to jump the riverbanks and begin washing out roads and farmland.

“Oh, not too long,” he said shaking his head and laughing in disbelief, adding that it was a matter of minutes before sections of Route 112 were under several feet of water, mud and silt.

He was 10 years old when the 1938 floo d hit the area, and as devastating as that was, Brigham said that Irene’s damage to the land abutting the rivers has been greater, despite the bridge on 112 that spans the East Branch River not surviving the earlier flooding, which it did this time.

“I don’t remember the flood taking houses in ’38,” Brigham said. “It took whole houses this time.”

Brigham’s wife, Lillian, said that the damage to the surrounding land and throughout the town would have been less if the town had been permitted to remove the gravel and sediment buildup underneath the bridges.

That buildup created a much smaller channel for water to get through, causing flooding to occur much faster than it would have otherwise, she said.

“It may be years before (Colrain) gets back to the way it was, if it ever can,” Lillian Brigham said.

“It’s especially bad to lose a whole home, but the farmers have lost their way to make a living,” she said.

Lillian Brigham said that any family, friends, and visitors who may have complained about having to traverse their home’s 100-foot long, steep sloping driveway to reach the house, won’t be fussing anymore after witnessing the aftermath of the rains.

“We’re glad we’re up here,” she said.

Islands in the hills

During the height of last week’s storm, Colrain was transformed into six or seven islands, all cut off from each other due to roadways being washed out, said Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Worden.

“Everyone was cut off from everywhere else,” Worden said. Anticipating the flooding, Worden said that firefighters, police and other first responders were stationed in different sections of town rather than all being centrally located at the fire station, where they would all be cut off from some sections of town.

Worden said that the department was involved in t wo rescues during Irene.

In one, a car was swamped by floodwaters in the center of town with its operator still trapped inside.

A rescue worker trying to reach the car had to be pulled back to safety when the current became too strong.

Worden said that the operator of the car was able to start the vehicle and was directed to drive off the road to a section that was still passable and managed to get to a spot where they could exit the car and be transported to safety.

In the other, an elderly woman trapped in her home across from the town’s highway garage (which is still being cleaned out from being flooded itself) had to be rescued when waist-deep water flooded her house.

Worden said that he is still astonished by how fast and powerfully the floodwaters struck the town.

“I’m surprised the bridge is still there,” he said.

Worden said that there are still three roads in town that are not fully passable by emergency vehicles, requiring the use of all-terrain vehicles and rescue sleds, if needed.

Sections of North and South Green River roads and Maxam Road are still unusable, according to the Fire Department.

The fire station on Main Road has become the central hub of the cleanup and recovery efforts.

Gravel and sediment dredged up from the river and from below bridges is being deposited there and will be used to fill in the new channels the raging floodwaters cut, in an effort to restore the pre-Irene flow of the rivers and streams that jumped their banks.

Small mountains of dirt, sand and fill collecting there will be used to finish temporary road repairs where needed before the Department of Transportation comes in at some point to make permanent repairs.

“We’ve got a long road ahead,” Worden said. “It will probably be the end of September or beginning of October before we can start getting ready for winter.”

Worden said that every group, including local, state, and federal agencies, and the Army National Guard have been outstanding in their efforts to help the town get back on its feet.

“The town of Colrain is going to need a lot of help,” Worden said.

You can reach Bob Dunn at: bdunn@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268