I live in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, a Connecticut River town. I remember Monday, August 29, 2011, setting out to drive the eight miles to the supermarket in Walpole, NH. It had rained the day before, quite a bit, but nothing special. It seemed to me a good late summer rain.
I'd heard that Tropical Storm Irene had passed over New York with little harm done. Myself and most of the people of Northern New England hunkered down for a rain storm, nothing more. What I didn't know and what so many people didn't know was that it rained a lot harder for a lot longer in the hills and mountains of Massachusetts, Vermont, and the Catskills of New York. It was the hardest rain in a hundred plus years. Result: a deluge of almost Biblical proportions.
When I reached the the intersection where Route 123 passes over the bridge into Vermont, I got my first look at the Connecticut River. The sight stopped my breath. I'd been passing through this area all my life and I had never seen the river so high. A police officer was halting traffic at the bridge. The water level of the river was only a couple of feet from the bottom of the bridge, more than thirty feet higher than normal.
I turned the radio on. Seems as if Vermont had been hit hard by this huge rainstorm. Roads and bridges were washed out, isolating hill towns. Houses were swept away. All this registered with me, but it didn't really hit home until a year later when I had a student from Schoharie, New York, a valley town in the Catskill mountains, wrote a piece about what happened to her hometown. Ninety-four percent of the properties in Schoharie were damaged, many of them wiped out.
Schoharie is one of eight towns featured in GOOD NIGHT IRENE.
My education, my conscious raising, if you will, has continued with GOOD NIGHT IRENE. The book is a must-read for anyone who was in the vicinity of Vermont, the Catskills Mountains and the Berkshires in Massachusetts when Tropical Storm Irene created the great flood of August 28, 2011.
It's also a great read for the casual reader who wants to know how floods develop in mountainous areas in the United State. We're used to seeing and reading about floods that inundate wide flat areas along ocean coasts and in the broad valleys of great rivers. But Irene was, in effect, a series of mountain flash floods that roared into narrow valleys where the residents had little or no warning. It was as if nature unleashed an angry dragon for half a day. The many photos in the book gives you a better understanding of just how vulnerable all of us are to the vagaries and power of nature.
The style of GOOD NIGHT IRENE is journalistic, depending on photography and the stories told by the people who witnessed and endured the storm. And, as such, there will never be another book about this storm quite like it. It's a historical document of great import. These towns and their peoples who were cut off, both literally and figuratively, from their sister communities. People were concerned not only with their own losses, but with those of their neighbors and the town itself. How local people tied in their own happiness and identity with their towns is one of the themes that emerges in GOOD NIGHT IRENE. It's a great work of journalism; it's what journalism should be.
One thing that stuck out for me in these stories is just how important community spirit and neighborliness is to sustain individuals when there is nowhere else to turn. For those of us who live in small towns, a book like this helps us to understand and appreciate our fellow townspeople, and thereby gives us a better understanding of ourselves.