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McCallum: The Last Word

10/11/11 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) While commentator Mary McCallum was spared property damage from Tropical Storm Irene, her southern Vermont town was hit hard. But it is the small personal moments of her neighbors that lodge most vividly in her memories of those first disastrous days.

(MCCALLUM) In Cavendish, I am one of the lucky ones. When Tropical Storm Irene swept across Vermont on August 28 , I lost power and read by candle and lamplight as the wind lashed the forest of tall red pines around my house. I watched through rain splattered windows as scores of them swelled in waves, bending as one. Miraculously, none broke. My home was spared but the three roads and a bridge leading to it were not. Transformed into raging brown torrents, they washed away and left those of us in this backwoods neighborhood unable to drive out. But being inconvenienced couldn't compare with what many residents of my town endured.

The National Guard moved in for a month to rebuild destroyed roads and bridges, while the elementary school became a shelter that dished up three meals a day and served as Central Command for donated food, hastily formed work crews, flood updates and a community of shoulders to cry on. Although I was cut off for more than a week, I have a bicycle and I love to walk. The half mile trek to the washed out bridge and pedal into town became the new normal. Helping serve meals to work crews and displaced families made me feel connected to the history making event, and even a little useful.

As in scores of communities around Vermont, Irene generated local stories to be passed on for generations. I carry two iconic memories of the storm that are flecked with hope, humor and irony.

There is the moment when the owner of our bakery cafe, whose car was nearly filled with water, opened the door to let gallons of filthy flood water pour out. He got in and sat in the dripping driver's seat to ponder the magnitude of damage to the car, his parking lot and his business. There, staring back at him at eye level sat a tiny survivor, also taking stock of its situation - a displaced mouse clung wearily to the top curve of the steering wheel. While mice aren't long distance swimmers, I imagined this tired refugee doing laps in the flooded car until help arrived.

The family next to the bakery suffered terrible damage to their basement and land. Over the years they had transformed their back acreage into a green oasis of winding paths, secret dells and hidden shady bowers with benches, sculpture, sparkly lights and flowers. You could get lost back there. Irene swept it all away, leaving behind a desert of sand, river stone, debris and mangled trees.

Days later, a crew of volunteers began the backbreaking labor of clearing it out and restoring the soil. They hauled stones and tree trunks, raked debris, planted grass and spread hay.

A worker looked up and noticed something orange snagged in a treetop. It was a book. Someone got it down and all stared in surprise at the title of the soggy volume. It was The Force of Nature . An ironic calling card left behind by Irene, who - it seems - just had to have the last word.
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