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Luskin: Flood Gates

03/15/12 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) Commentator Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist, and educator who believes in the benefits of foreign travel - which is exactly what saved Brattleboro's New England Youth Theater from Tropical Storm Irene's nasty flood waters.

(Luskin) When the flood waters of Tropical Storm Irene washed through downtown Brattleboro last August, the buildings along Flat Street were worst hit, with water carrying mud filling up basements on both sides of the street. On the north side, Experienced Goods, a popular thrift shop whose proceeds support our local Hospice, lost its entire inventory and sustained damage to its walls and floors, and all the new winter shoes at Sam's Outdoor Outfitters were ruined. On the south side, the side closest to the raging Whetstone Brook, the historic Latchis Theater lost its electrical, heating and ventilation systems, and two of their tenants were flushed out as well: Adivasi, an import store, lost all their artisan textiles to the mud. Shram and Alyssa Bhanti, the proprietors, had no flood insurance and businesses are ineligible for FEMA. But with the help of volunteers and community support, they're up and running again. The Flat Street Brew Pub lost its commercial kitchen and downstairs dining room. The upstairs bar has finally reopened, but the restaurant is still shuttered. Ironically, the building closest to the stream, The New England Youth Theater, escaped damage.

In 2006, NEYT purchased the old Tri State Automotive building and drew up plans to renovate this industrial space into a 144-seat theater with workshops for set and costume construction, administrative offices, and three classrooms. Meanwhile, two non-related members of the board of directors just happened to take two separate vacations to Venice, Italy, at about the same time. Independently, they both returned to the boardroom with the same idea: to protect the new theater with the kind of floodgates they'd seen in Venice. As a result, each of the outside doors to the building has gates that were lowered before the storm started and which kept Irene's waters out of the building.

NEYT did even more. They buttressed the upstream corner of the building nearest the brook so it acts like the prow of a ship which water goes around, and they added both height and weight to the floor, so that the building would both stay in place and stay dry.

All three classrooms are on the streamside of the building and have huge windows, strategically placed higher than usual. During the flood, water came to within twelve inches of the glass - but didn't come in.

By happenstance, an old, industrial weight, chain link fence about six feet from the water's usual edge deflected the debris hurtling downstream from hitting the building, serving as an unplanned buffer.

Despite all these precautions, the theater did suffer some loss: the grassy outdoor play area and all the lawn were washed away.

While rebuilding along riverbanks may not be ideal, in Vermont, we may not have much choice.

If we do rebuild, we could possibly mitigate damage by following the example of the New England Youth Theater and combining shipbuilding techniques with the floodgates of Venice.
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