A Month After Irene, Rochester Family Copes With Loss Of House

09/26/11 7:48AM By Mitch Wertlieb, Melody Bodette
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Coping After Irene 

 

AP Photo/Toby Talbot
This photo of Jon Graham and Beth Frock's home went around the world following the flooding. This picture was taken two days after the house collapsed.

(Mitch Wertlieb)  Of the many astonishing and sad images that emerged after Tropical Storm Irene ripped through and dumped nearly 11 inches of rain on Vermont in 24 hours, one in particular brought the surprising power of the disaster into focus: an attractive, three story farmhouse, destroyed - collapsed on its side - brought down by a brook that eroded the bank below. Before the storm, it was a stream so small, so seemingly harmless, that the family who lost their home didn't even know its name.

This is in Rochester, a town hit especially hard by Irene. What remains of that home, which is now just a pile of rubble and debris, belongs to Jon Graham and Beth Frock.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, they had no idea what to do next.

(Graham) " I don't think that  property could be rebuilt."

(Frock)   "Right now every day is so filled with things to do that I haven't even processed it emotionally. Yeah maybe I might do that.  But not right now.

(Wertlieb) That was just days after the storm. It's now been three weeks since the raging water, decimated their house at the edge of the village.

Jon Graham and Beth Frock think their story illustrates the challenges faced by people in the flood zone.

(Graham) "It's not just our house; it's become a symbol, for some reason it resonates."

(Wertlieb) So they've agreed to let us check in with them now and in the future as they try to put their lives back together.

VPR/Melody Bodette
VPR's Mitch Wertlieb with Jon Graham and Beth Frock.
A picture of their crumpled house made its way around the world. Jon Graham says they've heard from friends far and wide who were stunned to see the impact of Irene summed up in that one photograph.

Jon Graham is an acquisitions editor at a local publishing house, and an artist in his spare time. He has a weathered, yet youthful look for his 55 years, and wears his hair in a longish gray ponytail underneath a faded baseball cap.

Beth Frock is 51, and sells clothing designs at a local store in Rochester. She also works part time at a café in town. She is a lean woman with long brown hair, and a warm smile that these days emerges with an unmistakable, underlying sadness. The couple has two daughters, 16-year-old Rhianna and 12-year-old Chloe, who are relieved to be back in school and distracted by a daily routine.

Three weeks removed from the total loss of the home they lived in for 15 years, Jon and Beth admit they're still in a state of shock. And even an unremarkable rainy day like this one brings disturbing memories of the late August storm.  

On the way down the street to look at the ruined home, a man stops in a truck to speak with Jon.

(Man) "Last night when I got home I saw the pictures for the first time - scary."

(Wertlieb) They chat as if they're neighbors who shoot the breeze every day. But the man Jon is talking to is an old friend he hasn't seen since high school, who drove up from Rutland to offer help when he couldn't reach Jon by phone.

(Man) "If there's anything you can think of you need, immediately, give me a scream."

(Graham) "All right."

(Wertlieb) Jon's high school friend offers clothes for one of his daughters. And when it comes to  help, Beth Frock says right now, she calls herself the "just say yes woman."

(Frock) "It's sort of this chain of things you don't realize what you don't have. Somebody gave me baking sheets, and I thought, ‘Oh, good. I can make cookies.' But then I realized I didn't have any measuring cups. So the next person that came by I said, ‘Measuring cups.' Then I got the measuring cups and I realized I don't have baking soda, and if we have to replace those littl things, it's so many things, just little things you don't think about."

(Wertlieb) "Now we're looking at the front of the house. I can see what looks like it used to be a porch. But everything's caved in. You can just barely see the foundation."

(Frock) "This is where the edge of the garage was. And then the porch, where there's just dirt there.  

(Graham) "The house slid this way and down."

(Wertlieb) An orange "X" and the words "haz mat" have been spray painted on the house, Hurricane Katrina style.

(Graham) "That was the search and rescue people from Colchester."

(Frock) "And you can't go in because a sewer line broke and it went into the house."

(Graham) "That was the living room floor there, the hardwood floor there."The front end of the foundation, it just cracked right off."

 

VPR/Melody Bodette
Rescue workers marked the house to keep people from going inside

(Wertlieb) "Would you prefer not to have to look at this?"

(Frock) "I think it will be good when it's gone. You know, it will be good for us when it's gone. We do come everyday, though. We just do."

(Wertlieb) Jon Graham's mother died at the end of last year. She lived a short walk away in the center of town, and that's where the family is living now. From there, looking at Rochester's quaint town green, with its pretty gazebo, surrounded by white-trimmed inns and small-town funky shops, it almost looks like nothing ever happened.

(Frock) "You know it's pretty amazing, when we...the next morning, we couldn't come and walk across this way because there was no change."

(Wertlieb) "Almost like not that big a deal, and then you look around and you can't even cross the road."

(Frock) "And we didn't realize at that point that we really couldn't get out of town.  there was no way anybody could get out of the town of Rochester at that point."

(Wertlieb) The last three weeks have been spent feverishly cleaning the few items they could salvage and everything else they now have has been donated by friends and neighbors.

But Jon Graham and Beth Frock realize they're actually lucky, because the flood waters rose quickly, and Jon Graham survived even though he was inside the house when it finally surrendered to the forces of nature.

(Frock) "I think it was between 1 o'clock and three forty, which is when our house fell down, which I only know because his watch stopped. So it was very fast."

(Graham) "We'd gotten my daughters out a half an hour earlier and sent them up. But then we went back for the cats, who were hiding. And we found the one cat, and Beth brought her up to our neighbors' house where our daughters were. And she came back and I had been up on the third floor and the second floor looking under beds. And I guess several minutes before the house actually broke from the foundation and toppled, He just popped up out of nowhere and Beth grabbed him and she called me downstairs to help get him into the carrier.  And I was on the second floor, so I came down and she said, forget the carrier, and she just grabbed him like this and went out of the house, and I was about to follow her and I spotted a bag that had my laptop and all the insurance papers, passports, birth certificates, all the valuable papers I gathered together and stuffed in a bag. So I stepped back to get it and I just kept going because the house just went over."

(Frock) "It just fell over."

(Graham) "Yeah, she was outside."

(Wertlieb) "The sound must have been incredible as well as seeing it happen. What did it sound like?"

(Graham) "Well, for me, it was just a confused impression. It was like being on a roller coaster. The movement just overpowers you and all I was conscious of was darkness and just sort of rolling backwards. And when it came to a halt, I basically just thought to myself, ‘This is over. This is the end.' This is where it ends.‘ Cause the water was coming up through the back of the house and I could feel it. Luckily, I landed feet first in the water not head first. And actually a bookcase that had been under the stairwell had toppled over and it was too tall for the hall so it held up all the debris on top of me. So I actually found myself in a little cave. So I was able to wiggle out of the coat I was in, which was pinned by something, and sort of pull myself with my elbows and knees up the hall, which was like at a 45 degree angle at that point. And then when I got to the door, there was one of our neighbors was waiting.  So once I got out on the porch , and I reached out my hand and he pulled me out the rest of the way."

(Wertlieb) Getting back to a sense of normal is proving to be tough. Beth says she has trouble concentrating when she's at her clothing store, and is avoiding her second job for now.

(Frock) "I wait tables two days a week at the Rochester café, which I haven't been able to do, just because everybody knows me, and everybody's going to want to talk about it. And that sympathy factor wouldn't be good for me and it wouldn't be good for the customers either."

(Wertlieb) What Beth really wants is to rest.

(Frock) "We haven't been sleeping well. Nobody in this town has been sleeping well. From what the Red Cross said to me, that's classic. That trauma that the whole town feels, we just don't sleep well."

(Wertlieb) The couple received the most money they could get from FEMA, just over $30,000, but Beth says most of that check will have to go towards removing the pile of debris that used to be their home. Jon and Beth don't want to move out of Rochester, but they can't rebuild the house where it was. The changed course of the brook saw to that. And they still need to find out how much, if any, of the damage will be covered by their insurance company, and whether they'll have enough to rebuild.

For the most part, Jon and Beth display the kind of New England stoicism that's sometimes played for cliché. But they're only human.

(Frock) "Some days are better than others."

(Graham) "It's up and down. It's your proverbial emotional roller coaster. You think you're getting better and then, one day, you go back. It's not great when it rains.I sort of like triggers, a physiological reaction. It just feels like the same feeling we had just before it happened. We just have this sense of dread and you can't really pin it down."

(Wertlieb) And there are constant reminders of what happened, even during a casual stroll through town. As we say goodbye, a couple-friends of Jon and Beth approach to say hello. But before saying a word, they all embrace on the sidewalk near Rochester's deceptively untouched town green.

 

VPR/Melody Bodette
The Graham-Frock house was completely destroyed, while a similar house next door is still standing.

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