In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene (called Hurricane Irene until it passed through New York City) flooded homes, uprooted trees, and destroyed roads and bridges in New England for two days.
William Benton/City of VergennesVermont In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene (called Hurricane Irene until it passed through New York City) flooded homes, uprooted trees, and destroyed roads and bridges in New England for two days.

When Hurricane Irene made landfall in North Carolina on Aug. 27, 2011, with wind gusts up to 115 mph, cities along the East Coast prepared for the worst.

The City of Vergennes, Vt., Public Works Department braced to protect the 2,700 citizens of the state’s oldest city. “We prepared our equipment—chainsaws, personal protective equipment, emergency road signs—and double-checked our vehicles,” says Jim Larrow, public works supervisor. “And we always make sure our families have what they need before we leave them for who knows how long.”

For about 24 hours the small crew, including Larrow, Pat Crowley, Chris Bearor, and Lyle Swinton, battled what had become Tropical Storm Irene. As they cleared debris from roads and prevented back-ups in storm drains, culverts, and ditches, they also fought to save one of the city’s historic treasures.

The Lois McClure, a replica 1862 canal schooner, and its tugboat C.L. Churchill were docked in town to celebrate Vergennes Day the day before Irene hit. “The crew decided it would be safer to stay here instead of trying to make it back to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, where they are regularly docked,” says Larrow. “They made the right decision—the lake sustained winds up to 50 miles per hour.”

Although not officially responsible for vessels in Vergennes’ Otter Creek River Basin, Larrow’s team added chains and blocks to secure the Lois McClure and three other boats as the water rose 5 feet and crested the seawall. According to Erick Tichonuk, the museum’s executive director, “They worked all day and night to make sure our vessels and every boater were safe during one of the most catastrophic natural disasters our area has ever seen.” Larrow confirms there were no injuries or boat damage.

Presenting the department with a proclamation of gratitude, Tichonuk states, “Jim and his crew have always been a ‘We can make that happen’ team. The events around Hurricane Irene made them hometown heroes in our book.”

Experienced crew weathers Tropical Storm Irene

As the City of Vergennes, Vt. awaited Tropical Storm Irene’s impact in August 2011, the city’s four-man Public Works Department had already had its share of experience with storm damage. The team had dealt with the aftermath of a 3.5-inch rainfall in April and 1.5 inches in July that fell within 25 minutes. Both storms resulted in major washouts of roads, driveways, culverts, and ditches, according to Jim Larrow, public works supervisor.

While Tropical Storm Irene brought about 3.5 inches of rain to Vergennes over the course of 24 hours, “it’s always the worst for us after the storm,” says Larrow. “All of the stormwater collects into Otter Creek and comes through our little city. It takes up to five days for it to crest, and we never know how long it will take to go down—it depends on the water level of Lake Champlain and the weather.” During Irene, the water rose five feet.

Larrow’s team worked nonstop through the storm to keep streets and stormwater systems clear—and took on the added responsibility of protecting the boats docked in town. These included the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s replica 1862 schooner, the Lois McClure, and its tugboat, the C.L. Churchill.

The schooner regularly travels to regional ports between May and October, educating visitors on the history of commerce and canals around Lake Champlain. But when Irene hit, it happened to be docked in the Otter Creek River Basin to celebrate Vergennes Day.

Mayor William Benton commended the city’s public works professionals for their dedication during the storm. “The water level rose multiple feet requiring the boat crews and our public works crew to continually add lines and adjust docks as the storm progressed,” says Benton.

With the help of LaPete Excavating from nearby New Haven, the Vergennes public works team and boat crews secured the Lois McClure and several other boats with extra chains, as well as blocks donated by Panton, Vt. Although Otter Creek rose above its seawall, Larrow was pleased to report there were no injuries or damages to the boats.