A Renewal of Faith in Vermont
Since the recession began in 2008 America has suffered. The economy has tanked, millions have lost their homes to foreclosure, unemployment has hit record highs not seen since the great depression of the 1930s; one in four Americans don’t get enough to eat, and homelessness is on the rise. The avarice exhibited by Wall Street financiers and the big banks are objects of public scorn and protest. Nearly four years into this recession, there is as yet no end in sight to America’s economic woes.
To make matters worse, no one in Washington seems to get it. Congress has an approval rating hovering around 10%, which makes one wonder why it shouldn’t be zero. There is no vision, no sense of a national responsibility, no leadership – our political system roils in chaos. It’s a dark time in our history. The ordinary American wants compromise and solutions, not endless squabbling and finger pointing.
A recent trip to Vermont at the end of September restored my faith in the American way. I was there for a reunion at my alma mater, Norwich University, during its annual Homecoming celebration. A month earlier Tropical Storm Irene hammered the state. Rainfall that routinely exceeded ten inches in places produced the worst devastation since the great storm of 1927. A Norwich geology professor, whose own home was flooded, has called it a 500-year event. Southern Vermont was hit the worst but areas elsewhere in the state were also badly damaged.
Normally placid creeks and rivers turned into raging torrents that swept away everything in their path, flooded homes and businesses and turned highways into rubble. Trees were uprooted and in places the Amtrak line was undermined so badly that rails hung in space after everything underneath was torn away as if by a giant hand.
Our bed and breakfast inn, which is situated in a valley, became an island as water cascaded down a mountain and swept away a great deal of the [dirt] road that runs past their house, tearing great chunks of rock from the roadbed. In a matter of hours the rain turned the valley into a lake, left a gaping hole in nearby Vermont Route 12A, destroyed a century old fish hatchery, and left a number of homes damaged and isolated. The power went out for five days and as people were cut off, the situation became quite grim.
In Northfield, a small town in central Vermont where Norwich University is located, a low-lying area was badly flooded when the Dog River tore from its banks and angrily and relentlessly swept through this vulnerable part of town. Some sixty homes were damaged, many beyond repair.
Before the waters had receded the call went out for assistance. Among the first responders was Norwich University. The school went into action and within a few hours the first of what became nearly 500 cadets, students, staff and faculty began coming to the aid of stricken Northfield homeowners and in so doing gave new meaning to the term public service.
During the period from 28 August to 26 September Norwich volunteers logged 3,865 hours of assistance to storm victims. It came in many forms. Help with the clean up – often under oppressive conditions of water, mud, silt and debris – could only occur after others organized and coordinated the relief effort. Volunteers had to be briefed, given assignments, and furnished with facemasks and protective gloves. It literally became a race against time.
Teams of volunteers began removing the water soaked contents of the flooded homes. Debris began piling up, some of which was burned in newly lit bonfires. What had only a few hours earlier been their possessions, many of them priceless, were reduced to waterlogged, moldy flotsam and jetsam. To make matters worse, a great many homeowners either had no insurance at all or not nearly enough to cover the damage.
And yet, through many truly trying days in their lives, there was an almost stoic acceptance of what had befallen them combined with an admirable attitude of “we’ll get through this.”
The volunteers from Norwich were joined by others from Northfield and from other towns who came to help. The Burlington Free Press called it a “Labor of Love in Northfield.” The newspaper quoted one homeowner marveling “as strangers who had only just met his family would sweat, strain and work in such mucky conditions. ‘These people are wonderful. The corps of cadets – what a blessing they have been. Vermonters, we make good neighbors.”
Said one junior student: “We have to help out wherever we can. Northfield is our home. They support us. We feel like it is an obligation.”
A hastily organized university relief fund received donations of more than $116,000 in amounts that ranged from $25 to $50,000. Among those working in Northfield was university president Richard W. Schneider. Norwich also partnered with the American Red Cross to provide hundreds of lunches and dinners and opened their shower facilities for the benefit of flood victims.
At Norwich considerable credit goes to Nicole DiDomenico, the university’s director of Civic Engagement, a young woman with a huge heart and superb organizational ability who quickly and efficiently masterminded the University’s response.
Norwich students and faculty worked not only in Northfield but also in other towns, some as far away as hard-hit Waterbury, in a mobile home park, staffing a childcare center, and cleaning debris from the Dog River.
As soon as the storm had passed neighbor began helping neighbor. Our B&B hosts, Debra and Jim Rogler, logged many hours assisting others. Even though they had no power and had to deal with a severely flooded basement, both thought only of helping their neighbors. This sense of community was repeated time and again in hundreds of other Vermont communities.
FEMA was soon present in Northfield but it was the volunteers who were there first and foremost.
What happened in Vermont and no doubt in a great many other places was a superb example of people selflessly doing the right thing: of responding to a crisis in any way they could, of caring for others and their neighbors.
Our spoiled Washington politicians with their exorbitant perks, gold-plated health plans, and fancy suits could learn a thing or two from the ordinary citizens like these hardy Vermonters, Norwich University students, faculty and staff, and many, many other ordinary Americans who selflessly rose to the occasion.
The motto of Norwich University is “I Will Try” and at no time in its history has this been more in evidence than in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. Another motto might well be: “Do the right thing.” And did they ever! It made me proud to be a graduate.
I am also proud of Vermonters and those who came from out of state, some from as far away as North Carolina to assist. From tragedy came compassion and in its wake it has reminded us all of everything that is good about America.
Carlo D’Este is a 1958 graduate of Norwich University.
Quotes are from the Burlington Free Press, September 4, 2011.