After Narrowly Surviving Irene, Wardsboro Family Waits For Resolution

02/02/12 7:50AM By Nancy Eve Cohen
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Travis, the Gervais' older son, and Vera Gervais rest for a moment outside of their home. Travis drove down from the University of Vermont in Burlington following the flooding to help his parents with the clean up.

(Host) More than half of the people displaced by Irene are still unsettled. Many are waiting on a government buy-back program to help them move forward.

And many are still dealing with the trauma of the day that the floods washed over their homes.

In the latest of our series, "Vermonters Displaced by Irene," VPR's Nancy Cohen reports on a family from Wardsboro who, on the day of the flood, thought they might not survive.

(Cohen) On the morning of August 28th the Gervais family had a lot to celebrate. They were about to begin their 23rd year in a raised ranch just above a swimming hole. And their youngest son was about to leave for his first day of college.

But the water in nearby Wardsboro Brook was rising. And 56-year-old Vera Gervais was keeping her eye on it.

(Vera Gervais) "When we saw it come over the bank, that's when we left the house. But we thought it was just going to be for a few hours and we'd be back."

(Cohen) But that wasn't the case. Eighteen-year-old Tyler Gervais says by mid-morning the brook he had lived by his entire life was unrecognizable

(Tyler Gervais) "By that time we couldn't get out of the driveway. We were stuck. And so we had to wait it out at our neighbors', their trailer, with water all around us. And that was bad. We had to watch everything float by. It was pretty awful."

(Cohen) Besides the Gervais, there were four other neighbors stuck in the trailer. Luckily, the phone worked. Fifty-nine-year-old Dennis Gervais says Wardsboro Fire and Rescue advised them to keep their eyes on a nearby flagpole to track the rise of the water.

(Dennis Gervais) "Rescue was calling us periodically to see what they could do. But they couldn't do anything. At that point, they had a helicopter maybe on the ready. They were trying to. But At that point we were on our own. There was nobody that could do anything for us."

(Cohen) Tyler says he's shaking just looking back on that day.

(Tyler Gervais) "There was a point where I just kind of wanted to lie down in our neighbor's house and like go to sleep and not be up for what was about to happen. ‘Cuz there was water going under their trailer. We didn't know if we were going to be swept down the river."

(Cohen) Vera phoned her oldest son, 21-year-old Travis, who was at UVM to say she loves him. And she called a niece to ask her to take care of Vera's elderly mother if the family didn't survive.

Finally, at about half past six, rescue workers ferried them out of the trailer in a little boat.

(Vera Gervais) "They tied it from a tree to a truck. And we had to go one by one across. That's when I broke down. Just the relief of just being rescued."

The Gervais' salvaged anything they could find in their home once the flood waters receded, including these family photographs.

(Cohen) Today the tears are still close to the surface for this family. Neighbors and friends helped them salvage most of their clothes and some furniture. But their house can't be saved.

A neighbor they didn't know, a second homeowner, gave them a place to stay for a while. Now they're renting from her. But they don't feel settled.

(Vera Gervais) "We have storage boxes all over the place with clothes in it. ‘Cuz there isn't any closets in this house. We have the things in Tupperware containers. Every once in a while it just hits you: ‘This is gone. That's gone. I don't have that anymore.'"

(Cohen) Shortly after the flood Tyler, the youngest, went away to college. That has underscored the sense of being homeless for his parents.

(Dennis Gervais) "We're not in our home. The kids are gone.  Empty nest syndrome, but it's not that. It's like everything. Empty house syndrome. We're not in our home, the kids aren't home. We're on a bad vacation. Are we going to get home soon?"

(Cohen) Dennis Gervais says they will, but for now they have to wait for the bureaucratic process to unfold.

The town of Wardsboro is applying for a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant. It would pay to knock down the house and cap the septic. It would also pay the Gervais 75 percent of their property's assessed value before the flood. 

But the family has to subtract the $30,000 they already received from FEMA and the $77,000 they got from flood insurance.

Dennis Gervais says it's better than nothing. And he's grateful to the Stratton Foundation which plans to give the family 25 percent of the value of their old home.

Tyler, the youngest member of the Gervais family, was supposed to drive his car to college the day following Tropical Storm Irene.

(Dennis Gervais) "Which is unbelievable. You know, they're such a great organization. They've come over many times and lead us, tried to lead us, through the process, make sure we understand what's going on."

(Cohen) Vera Gervais says they're also grateful to the neighbors and strangers who helped them.

But waiting to move on is tough. Especially with their former home still standing, close by.

Inside the house, a thick layer of mud coats the floor, so the ceiling feels lower. And everything's jumbled up like someone picked up the house and shook it.

(Tyler Gervais) "Those are the windows where the water just poured in."

(Vera Gervais) "This refrigerator was against the wall over there. This couch used to be on this wall. So it came all away around the corner.  It got lifted up and pushed around."

(Tyler Gervais) "That chair was over here." (Vera Gervais) "The TV is out on the lawn."

(Cohen) Outside, the Wardsboro Brook hugs the property. Boulders and whole trees clog the landscape now, along with the family's ruined belongings: a basketball, cushions from a couch, a can of olive oil. But Vera can still picture the view out her old kitchen, toward the brook.

VPR/ Nancy Cohen
Tyler Gervais and his mother, Vera Gervais standing outside their home in Wardsboro, which was devastated by the flood.

(Vera Gervais) "There was a table with six chairs over here with an umbrella. And there was a gas grill over here. And then beyond the deck there was two steps to go down to the grass. It was all grass."

(Cohen) But this idyllic scene is gone. When Vera drives by her old home now, it stirs up her loss.

(Vera Gervais) "I sometimes just scream. And I do. I let out a scream. And then I work evenings, so when I come home at night it's just pitch black. And that also is even hard. Because there was always a light, the light left on for me to come home. And there's absolutely nothing there anymore. It's just black at night."

(Cohen) Dennis also tears up when he drives by. But he is starting to envision a new beginning.

(Dennis Gervais) "Slow process, very slow moving. We are looking at land. We have looked at real estate, But it's not going to come tomorrow or the day after. Maybe next summer, by the end of next summer, hopefully, we'll be situated some place where we want to be again."

(Cohen) But waiting and living unsettled continues to take a toll.

For VPR News I'm Nancy Cohen

(Host) Support for our reporting on the recovery from Irene comes from the VPR Journalism Fund.

Tomorrow, our series concludes with the story of a family in Londonderry who've rediscovered their sense of community.


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