McCallum: The Last Word

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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.

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

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.

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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