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After Irene: In South Royalton, reflections on what was lost, and how people came together

Ashley DeLeon (VTDigger)

Photos by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

SOUTH ROYALTON — “We were throwing somebody’s life into a dumpster,” Geo Honigford remembers.

Honigford, who owns the 37-acre Hurricane Flats farm, recalled the brutal cleanup his neighbors faced after Tropical Storm Irene tore apart sections of South Royalton. The village of about 700 residents, part of the town of Royalton, sits in a deep valley, and when Irene unleashed flooding that turned the White River into a roaring menace, water ripped into and through many of his neighbors’ homes.

Volunteers turned out in force to help with the cleanup, but as flooring, furniture and entire walls were discarded, Honigford remembers feeling terrible as damaged, invaluable treasures were being thrown away, too.

“I lost money. But they lost memories,” he said.

In all, repair costs for Irene-related damage in South Royalton exceeded $2.2 million. Irene dumped as much as 11 inches of rain on parts of Vermont, and caused $733 million in damage.

In South Royalton, the water rose across Route 14, the main highway through town, and safety officials started closing bridges and evacuating residents in danger zones. The water reached areas that the town had classified as a 500-year flood zone, a flood level not reached since the legendary flood of 1927.

When all the major bridges across the White River became impassable, state police agreed to break open a fence along Interstate 89, and for several days the “Hillbilly Highway” was the only way for people to get across the river.

The day before Irene, Honigford took note that high winds were predicted, and took precautions to protect his organic produce farm.

“We started buttoning up greenhouses, screwing down the sides, making sure the wind couldn't get underneath and blow apart,” he said. Later on, as the White River overflowed its banks, he waded into the water and cut the sides of his greenhouses to prevent water from pushing them over.

Hurricane Flats is nestled along the White River’s banks. Summertime brings swimmers, boaters and “tubers” to the area, but Irene turned its normally gentle current into a roaring torrent that threatened everything in its path.

The river “blew out all the trees lining the banks, leaving two big, gigantic holes,” Honigford recalled. “I had all these vegetables that we had grown down there. The true destruction was losing our crop because anything that had been touched by floodwaters would be unacceptable for sale.”

As the river rose, Honigford began moving equipment to higher ground — “mowers, rototillers, rotary mowers, and anything with a gearbox would get wrecked if it had sat out, I pulled that stuff aside.”

Then he waited out the storm. The next day, it was clear what Irene had destroyed.

“When the floodwaters went down, it started hitting me what was really going on,” he said. His house evaded damage, but not his neighbors’ homes. “They had no place to live,” he said. He and his neighbors raced against the clock to “get things gutted and drying out” before mold grew into walls. “That gave me a sense of purpose,” he said.

Across Vermont, thousands of volunteers poured into hard-hit communities like South Royalton, ready to do whatever was needed. Honigford was part of the volunteer coordination effort, and was able to tell neighbors that help was on the way.

“We’ll tell them what to do. You guys don’t have to,” Honigford explained to homeowners, such as lugging ruined mattresses and sofas to the roadside where collection trucks could take it away.

In South Royalton and other communities walloped by Irene, people with tractors cleared mud off the roads; other volunteers gathered to make food for the community; and teams of out-of-towners mucked out basements.

“We were just friends and neighbors helping each other,” Honigford said.

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