For One Vermonter, Irene Is 'A Gift'

08/28/12 5:30PM By Steve Zind
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VPR/Steve Zind
David Atkinson "christened" his rebuilt home on the one-year anniversary, to the minute, when his house washed away in the flood.

Along with the many people who are still recovering one year after Tropical Storm Irene, there are those who have managed to put their lives together and put the storm behind them.  

For one Braintree man the recovery has been a difficult and long process, but on the anniversary of the storm, he celebrated its completion.

It's an Irene story with a happy ending. 

It's also the story of how one spot on this earth can be so special to someone that they'll hang on no matter what.  Even if that spot is a postage-stamp sized patch of land wedged between a dusty back road and little rock strewn brook.

It's a story of a 72 year old Braintree man who lives largely on a $700 a month Social Security check, whose small house, except for one little section, was swept away - piano, woodstove, claw-foot bathtub and all - on August 28th.   A man who says he likes ‘the drama in things'.

For David Atkinson, the drama in Irene reached a crescendo at 3:30 on that August Sunday afternoon when he watched his house disappear downstream.  

Along with it went a good chunk of Atkinson's little quarter acre lot. What was left was a strip of land barely wide enough to double park on and a small addition Atkinson had built years ago.

After Irene, Atkinson was left with little more than his optimism that things would turn out ok.

"I look at everything positively," he says. " There's got to be a reason why it's happening, and there's got to be a good reason."

Atkinson's attitude may seem wrong- headed to some people, but it's pretty unshakable.  Despite his sense that things would work out, he felt a lot of uncertainty in the beginning.  

"There was a lot of time when I didn't know what my future was going to be," Atkinson explains. "  I had so many people pulling me in different directions.  I had two people offer me land, free land to build on."

At first Atkinson stayed with friends.  Then he moved into that tiny addition that Irene left behind.  He got $30,000 dollars from FEMA to rebuild his house.  He says the town wanted him take a FEMA buyout for an additional $9,000 and move somewhere else.

"What could I do with $39,000?" he asks.  " Where could I go and start from scratch?"

To that question, many of us might answer: "Anywhere!" And not just because the place might flood again, but because it's hard to see the attraction to this little smudge of land locked between hills so steep that the sun doesn't hit it for two months in the winter.

But, as he invites a guest to step out on his deck, Atkinson explains why feels differently.   

"I love it here," he says.  "I love this brook.  My brother's ashes are in the brook, his wife's ashes are in the brook, my mother visited here several times, so this is like my history. "

Even knowing what this brook was capable of on August 28, 20011, Atkinson says his feelings haven't changed.

"It was only one day that was horrendous," he reflects.  " But all the rest of the time, look at it.  It's just a puny little thing!  I don't know how many more years I've got, but I like to think I'll be gone before the next one comes."

It turned out Atkinson badly underestimated how much money he would have to rebuild. 

Friends and strangers made donations. A yard sale raised $5,000 for him.  Bethany Church in Randolph gave him another $5,000 and helped him apply for grants.  In the end, with the FEMA money, it all added up to about $60,000. 

"There's been so many people helping it's just impossible to make a list," says Atkinson. " But I did send thank you notes to 125 people."

Atkinson's new house is a single room full of windows.  A carpenter did the exacting work, while Atkinson pitched in where he could. 

Atkinson's furniture is donated, bartered for, or purchased second hand.  

22 years ago, Atkinson ran for Governor of Vermont.  He received less than 2 percent of the vote.  Even if he didn't get the support of his neighbors in the voting booth, they came through when it counted most.

"That's what I'm calling my christening.  I'm calling it ‘The Gift of Irene'," Atkinson explains.  "Because the gift of Irene is knowing how many people care. And I didn't know that."

On August 28, 2012 at 3:30 in the afternoon, one year to the minute after his old house disappeared downstream, David Atkinson christened his new one by breaking a bottle of champagne over the railing of his deck and thanking those many people who cared.

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