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Stacey remembers the 2005 flood without precedent

Originally printed by the Keene Sentinel

It was not unlike a sneak attack: It arrived under the cover of night and early morning, and off radar. The Flood of 2005 was unexpected, a storm for most of those who bore the brunt of it, without precedence.

Tributaries, wells, small dams and drains and culverts were easily overwhelmed by the volume of rain that fell over many hours. Major roads were turned into angry, roiling, deadly rapids. Small streets became canals. Anything not nailed down was swept away: swing-sets, bicycles, chairs, propane tanks, even cars, homes and people.

Residents fled if they could, some by boat or canoe. Others walked out their front door in waist-high water, carrying a pet or a must-have item overhead. Some residents no longer had a front door, or a home, to return to.

Emergency officials made door-to-door rescues.

It was a storm, too, with duration. While the hard rain in time ended, it remained a wet week, with off-and-on precipitation, just enough to keep water levels up, rivers and streams at risk of cresting again, and a region on edge.

Here is some of what people remember:

10 trees falling at once

For Dennis Nadeau, comfortably and deeply reclined in a worn chair in his cramped office on River Road in Hinsdale, the memories come back with increasing pace and clarity. It was, he later describes, “the worst week I ever remember.”

In Hinsdale, the primary damage from the 2005 flood was limited, but devastating. As a hard rain fell throughout night and early morning, Kilburn Brook swelled and surged, water screaming down its narrow, tilted passage adjacent to Route 63 and toward a culvert leading to Canal Street in Hinsdale’s downtown.

That alone might have been OK. But the vast debris and effluent — including a 10-foot by 10-foot deck peeled from a nearby property — that the fast-flowing brook collected massed at the mouth of the 8-foot wide culvert, blocking it eventually and preventing water from flowing under Canal Street and into the Ashuelot River.

As a result, while residents slept, heavy currents of water were forced over and around both sides of the culvert. By 1:30 a.m. Route 119, a section of which becomes Canal Street as it heads toward Winchester, was under a foot of water. An hour later, an unoccupied home along a bank of the brook was swept away by the powerful and growing surge.

A Sentinel report carried the next day said some people living in the area described the noise of the house being claimed by the angry water as the sound of 10 trees falling at once. Residents in several nearby homes had already been evacuated and sheltered at the high school about a half mile away.

Daybreak revealed the extent of the damage: a 250-foot section of Route 119 strewn with jagged, scattered chunks of pavement, like a box of tossed peanut brittle; a gash 10 feet deep in the middle of the main road; twisted pieces of metal pipe … the crumpled home.

A front-page Sentinel photo captured Nadeau sitting on a chunk of cement curbing, amid the destruction, looking lost in disbelief.

Nadeau is the water superintendent in Hinsdale. He just turned 63; this winter will be his 32nd on the job; he’s seen a lot. But nothing like that October day, he says 10 years later, “nothing close.”

He says he and all involved town staff easily worked a hundred hours that week. “The rain let up but didn’t stop for days,” Nadeau says. “It left us on edge all week.”

“That (Saturday) morning I remember checking the rain gauge at my home. It was 2 to 3 inches already. I went to supper with my wife in Keene later that day … got back around 5 or 6 … and the rain gauge was already full. I think, for those two days, we got 11 inches of rain.”

The washout of Route 119 cut off residents in that part of town from the rest of the community. It included about 50 homes in the village district; a fire truck was kept on that side of the divide until the bridge was repaired, which was several days later, Nadeau says.

“I remember most all of the help we got from the community,” Nadeau says. “A lot of local contractors brought in their equipment — excavators, dump trucks — and restaurants fed everyone. Three meals a day were served at the fire station for the workers.”

It is the town’s good fortune, Nadeau says, to have been chosen by the Environmental Protection Agency to receive funding for a flood mitigation mapping project that is ongoing. Federal, state and town officials are working together, he says, to recognize and chart susceptible areas in town and take appropriate preventative measures, to the extent it’s financially feasible.

The power of friends, family, neighbors

Janet Kingsbury Warren has seen devastation on a scale most could not imagine. Her work with the Red Cross, as a one-time volunteer and later as director of the N.H. West Chapter of the relief agency, gave her first-hand, ground-level glimpses of deadly natural disasters, including hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

She knows the toll, of life and property. Her career of many deployments didn’t serve to toughen her necessarily; loss is profound, she will tell you, one life or 20 homes.

But she wasn’t prepared, either, in the way she might have expected when her hometown, Alstead, was in the crosshairs of a deadly and historic flood.

“I serve with a new perspective now,” Warren says. “From a professional standpoint it may not have changed me, but after that, I knew what it felt like to be from an affected town; when you’ve lived it, you know it differently.”

These days, Warren, 58, continues to serve as a Red Cross volunteer; her full-time job is as managing director for The Dartmouth College Fund.

The flood, which hit Alstead harder than any other part of the region, resulting in the death of four people there, is never far from her thoughts. “Every day I go over the bridge, I get emotional; I still get goosebumps.”

The flood, she said, served to highlight her own awareness. “I thought I knew a lot more than I did, but until you’ve walked in those shoes, you don’t really know. What I hadn’t internalized is that I would be living with this and thinking about this for years.”

She was doing Katrina relief work in the Gulf only a few weeks before the Alstead flood, a surreal sort of timing, she says. What amazed her most, and still does, was the way her community came together in response to the tragedy. “People,” she says, “paused their lives to help one another.”

The night before the flood struck, sending what residents describe as a giant wall of water through this town of about 2,000 and washing away roads, bridges, vehicles and homes, like game-board pieces almost, an auction was held at the Alstead Village Third Congregational Church. “Some of the people at that auction,” Warren says, “lost everything. I ran into one the next day at the fire station. The woman had made a quilt for the auction; all she wanted to know was how the auction had gone … when she had just lost her home.”

For some people, a part of their lives was over, and yet “our community found a way to come together and they were part of it,” Warren says. “Very few people ended up going to a hotel; they were absorbed into the community — for months in some cases.”

Warren moved to Alstead in 1988, on a farm, with her husband, Phil, and daughter, Lindsey. On Aug. 7, 2008, a fire destroyed a barn on their property. More than 200 people showed up to rebuild the barn. “The two best days of our lives,” Warren says.

The flood three years earlier damaged only a section of her family’s property; otherwise, they were among the fortunate.

The small community’s strong sense of connection and regard for one another showed through in both events, she says. “It can be a sad time while it’s happening, but you get to know each other so much more; it’s cool when it happens. It makes Alstead special.”

Reflections

The Sentinel reached out to officials and residents to ask: “What is your enduring memory of the 2005 flood?” Here is what some had to say:

Keene Police Chief Brian Costa: “I remember awaking in the afternoon of the Saturday after having worked a midnight shift. I recall it rained all that day and into the evening pretty consistently. That night it was still raining as I reported for the night’s midnight shift, but I remember at around 0100 hours the rain began to come down harder, faster, and for a period of hours that I had never seen prior to, or since. Within an hour and a half roads began to flood and cars became submersed on Church Street. Shortly hereafter we began dealing with flood-related emergencies that would extend for the 7 to 10 days and beyond, with eventual assistance from the National Guard.” — In 2005, Costa was a corporal.

John Lynch, then N.H. governor: “I was on a trade mission to Europe, having flown all night to Frankfurt and on to Berlin, when I was made aware of the flooding. I immediately returned and went to Alstead the next morning. It was as if a bomb had dropped on the town. The devastation was immense. What I remember most is how the people in Alstead and the surrounding communities pulled together to help those in need. The caring and the love for their neighbors was truly heartwarming. In all the meetings I held, nobody ever said, ‘It’s not my job; it’s not my responsibility.’ Everyone at the state and local level worked hard to make things better. We all became very much a family, the bonds of which are there today. During the telethon to raise money for the victims of the flood, people from all over New Hampshire called in to contribute, including those families from Alstead who had lost their own homes.”

Samantha and Stefan Wilheim, Keene: “We remember being awakened in the dark at 5 a.m. by the Keene Fire Department, first by the lights and loudspeaker, and then at the door with the instruction to evacuate our home on the corner of Church Street and Hardy Court. My initial reaction was ‘where do we go, and what should we take.’ Stefan asked about the condition of nearby Carpenter Street; the fireman replied ‘totally under water.’ As dawn broke, we could see the extent of the flooding. Neighbors were congregated on Hardy Court. Stefan borrowed a pair of waders to get in to St Martins Lane, his cabinet-making business on Carpenter Street, to assess the damage. I paddled a canoe into the shop behind him. Finished cabinets were bobbing in approximately 34 inches of water. Equipment motors, office equipment and filing cabinets were submerged. It was completely disheartening. Amazingly, before too long, our employees and another local cabinet maker were there — ready to help us out. And that was the silver lining if there could be one.”

Jake Berry, then a Sentinel reporter: “For months and months following the flood, the words “wall of water” echoed in and around Alstead as we all struggled to describe the destruction. But, to me, it’s the memory of the sea of mud that stands out most. The mud was tar-black, and it smelled strongly of earth and oil. The stains remained on my pants for months, lasting through countless washes, and the smell held far longer. Now, 10 years later, the town has recovered, and the stains have faded. But, the memory of that sea of mud that cut off Alstead from the rest of the world remains clear as day.”

Stacey Trombley, owner, Gemini Screenprint, Keene: “My husband and I had only purchased Gemini on Kingsbury Street eight months prior to the flood. We thought the business was doomed before we really got started. It was a nightmare! The loading dock was over 4 feet high and the water was up to the loading dock on the side of the building but the water had come crashing in from the front of the building on Carpenter Street. Everything inside (inventory, computers and equipment) was covered in silt and submerged in filthy water. Luckily, we did survive and business has continued to boom but on Emerald Street, at the Center at Colony Mill.”

Michael Kiser, owner, Kiser’s Orthotic and Prosthetic Services, Keene: “We were devastated when we pulled up to the sight of water coming up from the storm drains soaking our life’s work in 3½ feet of foul stench. I was not optimistic about our future until I read about others losses and then I felt lucky to have a dry home to return to and formulate a plan for rebuilding.”

Kurt Blomquist, public works director, Keene: “For me, looking back it was different from all the events I dealt with in my previous 11 years. That weekend ushered in a change in our weather events and how we respond. The other thing that stands out for me was the teamwork that occurred. I got the call from then fire chief Gary Lamoureux to come in and when I stepped into the city’s Emergency Operations Center the other department representatives were there, representatives from Eversource (PSNH) and American Red Cross came in shortly, and people were taking calls, asking how they could help and how we all flowed into a team working to provide the necessary support to the community.”

Gary Lamoureux, then fire chief, Keene: “It is hard to believe it has been 10 years as the memories of that day are still vivid. What stands out for me is the dedication of all emergency workers, local and state, that unselfishly spent literally days trying to help others. At midnight when we activated the City of Keene’s emergency procedure no one wanted to go home until the situation was under control. As we worked in the Emergency Operations Center we heard of the Alstead breach and the devastation that they endured. As we listened it was very quiet and you could see the concern and disbelief on everyone’s face. As usual, the people of this community worked together for the best possible outcome.”

Ray Dunn, Chesterfield resident: “I remember I was tournament director of golf at Pine Grove Springs Golf Course at the time. We had to play our regular Sunday morning tournament as a 14-hole tournament that day. Two of our nine holes were partially submerged with 2 to 3 feet of water. In fact, some of the members decided to play those two holes anyway by kayaking through the submerged areas in order to reach the tees and greens.”