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After Flooding, Shelburne Falls Picks Up The Pieces

This article is more than 11 years old.

This story was reported by WFCR-FM's Jill Kaufman

SHELBURNE FALLS, Mass. — The Deerfield River runs through Shelburne Falls. In the middle of this northwestern Massachusetts town's vibrant commercial center, the river rose so high during and after Tropical Storm Irene that it crashed over its banks, onto roads and even moved buildings. And all just as foliage season is about to start.

Tourism is not Shelburne Falls' only source of prosperity, but the picturesque village does profit greatly from visitors. That means many residents here are trying to clean up the town in time for Labor Day weekend.

Shelburne Falls straddles two towns — Buckland on one side of the river and Shelburne on the other. Mary Vilbon may well be the most popular person in both towns this week. She's the executive director of the Shelburne Falls Business Association, but now, she's also a de facto emergency responder.

On the Buckland side of town, groups of volunteers vigorously, and sometimes futilely, swept dried silt left over from the weekend flood. The river rose so high and so fast it destroyed parts of buildings and knocked out power. Nearby, Vilbon coordinated response.

"We're working with the electricians to try to get a temporary power setup so that they have power," Vilbon said, "so they can clean, so they can have lights."

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Since Irene, almost every business person and landlord in town has called upon her. Or, she's found them.

"It's going door to door, talking to every business owner, and to residents," Vilbon said. "'What's happening in your spot? What have you done already? What haven't you done?' Giving them the resources they need to connect with."

Those resources include dozens of volunteers organized to haul debris or move salvageable store merchandise to a new location. She's connected shop owners, artists and restaurateurs to elected officials and she's made sure that anyone who needs a meal in the middle of this ordeal gets something to eat. But regarding financial help from the government, she's had no word yet.

As for flood insurance, Vilbon says only two businesses in Shelburne Falls had that kind of policy. Most people, like Bill Connelly of the Shelburne Falls Eagle Club, are on their own.

"If you look at the flood insurance policies, you can't afford them — they're sky high," Connelly said. "So, you take your chance. You don't get a hundred year flood like this. This is the second one that I've been out, too. In '87 it was bad, but this one here is twice as bad."

Connelly was the single full-time employee at the members-only social club and he said he watched his job float away earlier this week. The flood damage is so bad that the club where locals regularly play pool and darts and have drinks after work closed. Connelly is on unemployment.

"We're at the river bank right here," Connelly said. "Basically, when the flood came, we ended up
getting 9 feet of water in here."

The room looks like someone tossed it upside down. When the river crashed the door and rushed in, a large refrigerator was pushed on its side and now it's almost blocking the entryway. The floor is covered in half a foot of mud, and unlike the street silt, it's still wet and smells a lot like clay. The bar is broken and buckled. Somehow, though, there are still bags of chips hanging perfectly straight behind it.

“I think everybody is overwhelmed right now. They just need time to digest.”

Michael Garfield-Wright, Shelburne Falls landlord

Connelly says a lot of electricians, plumbers and carpenters are members and that they will rebuild the club. They just need a plan.

"We're at a loss," Connelly said. "I do have a 30-yard dumpster coming in tomorrow because we're going to start weeding this stuff out. We've got to get this cleaned up before it spreads upstairs — mold and stuff. We will rebound. We will fix this place up one way or the other, we love this club. And it will come back, better than it was before, I guarantee that."

Across the bridge, still closed to cars until engineers give it the all-clear, Michael Garfield-Wright helped his tenants bring out debris from the river level of a three-story brick building.

"I think everybody is overwhelmed right now," Garfield-Wright said. "They just need time to digest."

The first floor tenants, bookstore owners, don't know if they'll return here once the place is cleaned up. They lost about 65 percent of their inventory. In the last few days, they've tossed out 10,000 volumes.

Garfield-Wright says another tenant, an artist and musician, who had rented a river-level space for more than a decade, lost maybe half of his work and instruments.

"Ben had approximately 2.5 hours to get out of here," Garfield-Wright said. "What happened is,
he was here on Sunday morning at 9:30. He looked out at the river and everything was fine. Then between 9:30 and 11:30 it literally rose 6 or 7 feet. He was up to his navel. It was incredibly fast."

Garfield-Wright is thinking maybe in the future, another type of tenant would be better in the riverside location — someone with just a computer and a fax machine.

On both sides of the Deerfield River, people keep saying that the towns have pulled together since Irene. Vilbon doesn't think the flood will hurt Shelburne Falls in the long run.

"Everybody has been working so hard independently, because of the economy right now, that this has brought us together as a community," Vilbon said. "In some ways you look at the blessings. You know, no one was seriously injured in this, everything was just property loss."

Even with all the helping hands, there's an enormous amount of repair ahead. And instead of serving customers, some will still be cleaning right through the three-day weekend.


This program aired on September 2, 2011.


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