Vermonters' way of generosity helps each other

September 10, 2011 - 11:30 AM
Irene The Vermont Way

In this Sept. 8, 2011 photo, James Raymond, left, helps Elga Gemst in the cleanup of her flooded home in Moretown, Vt. Already imbued with a strong help-thy-neighbor ethic, Vermonters' kindness bloomed anew amid the rubble of Irene's destruction. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

MORETOWN, Vt. (AP) — For 30 years, Elga Gemst kept to herself and went about her business in her small Vermont town.

An artist and architect, she lived with her husband in a modest two-story house dating to the 19th century, next to bubbling little Doctors Brook. She'd say hello to her neighbors when she bumped into them in town, but she liked her privacy.

Then Tropical Storm Irene hit, dumping torrential rains that overflowed the brook and flooded the first floor of her house, leaving an ungodly mess of muck, soggy photo albums, books and other belongings.

Now, she can hardly open her door or answer the telephone without someone volunteering to scrub the mud out of her laundry room, throw away soaked furniture, cook her dinner or take her dishes home and wash them for her.

"I'll tell you, the sweetest words to hear — that I've heard a thousand times this week — are "Hi, can I help you? I'm here to help.' And they just start. They pitch in. There's families, old people, young people, high school students, little kids, pregnant people. It's just been incredibly overwhelming.

"I've been carried on a flood of generosity," she said.

She's not alone.

The Aug. 28 storm knocked out hundreds of roads and bridges in the state, damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and left some Vermont towns stranded.

But it has also generated countless of acts of kindness, from community house-guttings to citizen-led road rebuilding projects, from missions of mercy for stranded homeowners to volunteer days cleaning the mud out of schools. In the process, it has burnished a civility that some up here refer to as "the Vermont way."

"Vermont is an amazing place," said Vee Lynch, who has been organizing volunteers in Moretown. "When something happens, people show up."

While there's no shortage of out-of-state help flowing in now, in the first week after the storm it was mainly neighbors helping neighbors, many of them alerted to others' problems online. In the Mad River valley, where Moretown is, a Facebook page sprouted up with photos and witness accounts of the flooding.

It quickly morphed into an online clearinghouse for help needed and offered.

"People were posting what they needed, where roads were out, who's gotten power back, where crews were, what volunteer needs were, who was coordinating what, who had a portable generator or pickup truck available or bulldozer or electrician and it was truly amazing how this site organically took off," said Kurt Gruendling, vice president of marketing for Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom.

The volunteer spirit flourished in other hard-hit towns.

After damaged roads cut off the residents of Killington, EMT Denise Coriell, 59, took it on herself to organize a prescription drug delivery system to help people who couldn't get in or out of the town with cars.

With U.S. Route 4 — the main route into Rutland and pharmacies — broken by floodwaters and impassable, Coriell arranged to have the pharmacies deliver the prescriptions to Mendon Town Hall, on the other side of the broken road. Then, Constable Scott Bradley used a four-wheel drive vehicle to shuttle the medications over the break and into Killington, where they were distributed to the people.

In the two weeks since, the makeshift delivery system got more than 200 prescriptions to 125 people in Killington, Pittsfield, Bridgewater and Stockbridge, Coriell said.

Coriell, who wasn't asked to arrange it and wasn't paid, says lots of people in Killington performed unsolicited acts of kindness.

"Anybody who had a piece of heavy equipment was out there the next day. There was no direction from the state. They just got into their machines and started moving stuff and creating roads," she said.

"The self-sufficiency of the people who live here, we're not going to wait for someone to help us. We're going to help ourselves," Coriell said.

Sometimes, it was the flood victims themselves doing the work — for others.

Joe Colburn, 60, a golf course mechanic, saw his home along the White River in Royalton flooded with 32 inches of water. Two days later, a group of people showed up offering help. The next day, eight teenagers form nearby Sharon Academy were there, tearing out the sodden floors and walls.

The day after that, 35 volunteers — mostly strangers — came looking to help. One of them was the son of a Vermont State Police officer whose home also had been flooded.

"His own home was flooded, and here he was helping me," said Colburn, he said, choking on the words.

"I don't know these people, and they didn't know me. The outpouring, that's what makes me cry. Not losing my house, losing my possessions. It was a sight to see," he said.

Gemst, 57, who is still living in her house, said one of those helping her was an 80-year-old woman who got on hands and knees to scrub mud from the corners of Gemst's laundry room. Someone else dropped off a power washer and two wet-dry vacuums. She's had dinners delivered, and a stranger drops off dry firewood every day, since hers got soaked in the flood.

She's beyond grateful.

"It turns out that even though we lost half a house when the water came up into the ceiling of the first floor, it feels like we've gained a community," she said.

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Associated Press writer Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.