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Irene Causes Widespread Flooding In Northeast

MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel.

Hurricane Irene made her way up to Canada last night, leaving behind blue skies and blackouts. Millions of people from North Carolina to Maine are without power. Irene struck New England as a tropical storm, but still caused widespread flooding, especially in New York state and Vermont.

Vermont public radio's John Dillon reports that many of that state's most important roads have been washed out.

JOHN DILLON: Goldie Watson called 911 yesterday because she couldn't get out of her flooded home in Northfield, Vermont.

GOLDIE WATSON: The road became a river. It jumped the curb. It flooded - I have double cellars, flooded both cellars, moved up to the first floor and was climbing when they came in their scuba gear and walked us across yards trying to get to higher ground.

DILLON: Like dozens of other streams around Vermont, the Dog River in Northfield jumped its banks when the remnants of Hurricane Irene dumped up to 7 inches of rain across the state. Five miles downstream, the river swept through a trailer park.

FRED CHURCHILL: That's why all the trailers look like, just like that. Muddy water.

DILLON: Fred Churchill surveyed the damage. Mud reeking of spilled fuel oil coated his trailer.

CHURCHILL: Every place down here, you're talking a foot of water inside your trailer anyways.

DILLON: Hundreds spent the night in emergency shelters. Two died in the flood waters in southern Vermont and two more are feared dead. Both the missing are workers for the city of Rutland who were checking out the municipal water system when they were swept away.

Vermont's roads follow the river valleys, so the heaviest damage was to roadways and bridges. Transportation Secretary Brian Searles says the state is just beginning to assess the destruction.

BRIAN SEARLES: And the list that I've been presented of closures on the state and local system looks to be about 260. I don't think we've ever experienced anything quite like that.

DILLON: Several of the state's iconic wooden covered bridges were washed away and entire sections of highway were destroyed. About a dozen towns were isolated because main highways were closed.


DILLON: On Route 100, which runs the length of Vermont, a state crew hurried to block the road with jersey barriers in Moretown. Highway worker Eric Austin said the Mad River cut under the bridge abutments.

ERIC AUSTIN: Right here, right where he's standing, all the way underneath that whole concrete section, there's nothing underneath it. So...

DILLON: Upstate New York saw similar damage. Bruce Reed is highway superintendent in the town of Keene in the outer Adirondacks. He looked exhausted and said it was hard to know where to start with the cleanup.

BRUCE REED: I believe five bridges are totally gone. Keene firehouse, half the house is gone, totally gone, gone down to rubble. Unbelievable. Never seen it so bad.

DILLON: Forecasters originally had expected the storm to track up the Connecticut River valley to the east, which would have meant less rain for Vermont and New York. Instead, the storm and its soaking rain went west and tracked slowly north, hitting almost every one of the region's river valleys.

Scott Whittier at the National Weather Service calls this a once-in-a-generation event.

SCOTT WHITTIER: You usually - I mean, '73 was a significant flood across the state. Before that was '27. Now, you're talking 2011. So I mean, we get these maybe every 40, 50 years.

DILLON: The storm is already drawing comparisons to the great flood of 1927. President Barack Obama has ordered federal disaster assistance to help in Vermont with the state and local response.

For NPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A veteran Vermont reporter, John joined VPR in 2001. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier. John was honored with two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards in 2007 for his reporting on VPR. He was the lead reporter for a VPR series on climate change that in 2008 won a national Edward R. Murrow award for continuing coverage. In 2009, John's coverage of an asbestos mine in northern Vermont was recognized with a regional investigative reporting award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association.