By the time Mountain Cold Weather cadet Eric Birr reached the Wall St. bridge, the Dog River had jumped its banks—its murky water crashing through downtown Northfield—trapping residents and taking a bite out of homes and businesses along the way.

Coolers, propane tanks, furniture, and lawn ornaments swept by as the NU senior and other members of the team witnessed the havoc wreaked by Tropical Storm Irene.

When the raging floodwaters receded, large sections of the state were left pockmarked with destruction. In total, the August 28 storm dropped 15 inches of rain, left four Vermonters dead, swept away sections of more than 200 roads, and forced the closing of 35 bridges. At least 13 communities were left isolated with no passable road in or out.

Unlike the historic flood of 1927, the governor did not declare martial law, but as with the epic storm of the last century, hundreds of Norwich students came to the fore to cushion the blow both during and after the crisis.

As they followed the storm’s progress up the Eastern seaboard on Sunday, the day before the start of the fall classes, Birr and fellow MCW senior Mark Siegel requested permission to prepare the Rescue Team for an emergency response. Trained for extreme conditions, including mountaineering, cold-weather survival tactics, and high-altitude rescue, they moved to get their radios and equipment ready, just in case.

So, at 1500 on August 28, when the call came in from the Northfield police, they were standing by.

Small teams, eventually totaling 20 cadets, went into town to asssist with crowd control and evacuations. Birr managed the voluntary evacuation of a nearby senior living facility, and helped secure the use of a Norwich bus to safely transport residents to Northfield High School.

As the initial crisis passed, shocked residents were left to assess the damage: floors
and basements knee-deep in mud, houses swept off their foundations, and debris and destruction everywhere—from locations on Summer, Water, and Union Streets to Western Ave. In an act of solidarity, the three-day Northfield Labor Day celebration was cancelled for the first time in four decades.

Word of the extent of the disaster traveled up the hill, and as it did, help began to arrive. The Center for Civic Engagement mobilized a Norwich Disaster Relief team and groups of students headed down to muck out basements, knock down walls, and haul furniture, carpet, and appliances to dumpsters and burn piles.

Norwich men’s and women’s sports teams, including lacrosse, hockey, rugby, basketball, soccer, and swimming, all turned out, along with the Rangers, the HITS club, and several companies of cadets, including 70 students from 3rd battalion company 11-2 and civilian students from Crawford Hall. Norwich President Richard Schneider and his wife, Jaime, along with scores of Norwich faculty and staff, worked alongside residents and emergency personnel. One Saturday, the entire Mountain and Cold Weather Company spent the day cleaning out the wreckage at Wall-Goldfinger.

Wearing masks and gloves for protection, students passed sludge-filled pails hand-to-hand, bucket-brigade style. They staffed child care. They cleaned out the river bed. And they lived their Norwich values as Gen. Gordan R. Sullivan, the chairman of the NU Board of Trustees would write, “keeping with our traditions of selflessness and honor.”

In total, 800 students, staff, and faculty contributed 4000 volunteer hours of relief.
“Groups of 15 to 20 students wearily headed back towards campus. Covered in mud with dangling stained masks and gloves, the students, both Corps and civilian, shared a sense of camaraderie. This was not a mere collection of a few well-intentioned students, but appeared more like a deployment,” said Philip Susmann ’80, alumnus and president of NU Applied Research Institutes. “It is a further testament to this ‘Greatest Generation’—who has selected not the easy path to a college degree—to display their sense of community and service.”

As with the flood of 1927, the University opened its doors and its arms. The mess hall donated hundreds of meals—one evening’s contribution comprised 100 pounds of Shepherd’s Pie—and facilities operations staff came out in force, employing heavy equipment and trucks to move large loads. In addition, the showers at Plumley were made available to residents who had lost electricity and water.

At least 25 students and numerous faculty and staff suffered extensive damage to their homes and belongings. To help with losses, the Office of Development and Alumni Relations created the NU Relief Fund. To date they have gathered over $122,000 in donations from alumni, corporations, friends, and foundations.

And while Irene’s physical impact gradually passes into memory, her emotional impact will live on—the class of 2013 plans to include a hurricane warning flag in their class ring design, a permanent reminder of a momentous event during their time at Norwich.

Though separated by 84 years, the parallels between Tropical Storm Irene and the flood of 1927 are hard to miss.

Drive through any small Vermont town and make note of the plaques bolted to the sides of the bridges. More often than not the structures were built in 1928 or 1929, a lasting reminder of the devastation of the great flood of 1927. Then, as now, Norwich University students and staff were instrumental in rescue and relief efforts in Northfield and the surrounding areas.

Due to an unusually wet fall, by late October 1927, river banks all over Vermont were swollen and approaching their limits. A confluence of cold and warm fronts on Wednesday, November 2, resulted in three consecutive days of steady rain. By Friday, torrential downpours resulted in almost nine inches of precipitation on top of the already saturated ground. The result was horrific: 84 Vermonters lost their lives in the ensuing floods—yet incredibly, not a single person in Northfield perished.

The floodwaters, which rose upwards of 15 feet over the banks of the Dog River and Union Brook, transformed the downtown area into a veritable lake. Sophomore Glenn Leet ’30 wrote, “Almost all of the bridges were down, there were no lights or power, and communication with the rest of the world was cut off.”

The Norwich Record reported, “Most people living in homes in Northfield’s flooded area abandoned them Thursday afternoon while the streets were still passable. A number, however, were left stranded on the second stories of dwellings on Water Street and adjacent avenues. Heroic work by Professor H.C. Hamilton ’21, Cadet George Daley ’28, of Brattleboro, Chef William Jackson of the Norwich mess hall, and numerous townsmen, in taking turns in paddling a canoe over the swirling sea of water, mud, and [floating] debris, resulted in the safe removal of nearly a half hundred people from [their] precarious positions to safer sections of the town.”

Herbert T. Johnson, the adjutant general at the time, declared, “The work of the cadets of Norwich University on the night of the flood is the story of heroism and effort that will emblazon the pages of our history.”

With numerous residents evacuated from their homes, the Norwich Armory and fraternity houses were opened for those who suddenly found themselves homeless, meanwhile, the student-run radio station broadcast messages as far as Boston and New York that all of Northfield was safe.

Martial law was declared throughout the state, and Norwich cadets armed with loaded rifles patrolled the west end of town in two-hour shifts around the clock, preventing chaos, cautioning Northfield residents away from dangerous areas, and discouraging looting. Others filled sandbags and built dikes to protect homes and businesses within the village.

As with Irene, early 20th-century Vermonters counted their losses and started the rebuilding process, while the University continued its involvement in the form of relief and cleanup efforts. NU alumnus Colonel M.A. Campbell, a local attorney and World War I veteran, was placed in charge of the town, and promptly issued a directive for residents to conserve food and supplies and to remain within the town’s limits.

NU Professor Charles M. Barber, Class of 1908, was named Food Administrator, issuing food permits and rationing gasoline and the use of vehicles within the town.

In the ensuing days, Norwich cadets checked food permits, distributed supplies, and removed mud from homes and businesses. Electrical engineering faculty helped repair downed power and phone lines, while NU civil engineers surveyed damage to the railroad tracks and roads leading out of Northfield.

With Northfield badly battered but no longer in immediate danger, Norwich personnel reached out to the surrounding towns: U.S. Army Cavalry Captain D.A. Young, aided by Carleton Curry, travelled by horseback to Moretown. Finding the town all but destroyed and quickly running out of food, they returned to campus to organize aid. The next day, using University horses, Captain Charles Dissinger and Sergeant Frank Marino, along with three local men, led a caravan of supplies to the town, which had likewise been cut off as its bridges fell. In addition, mounted details of cadets came to the aid of the U.S. Postal Service, carrying the town’s mail to Montpelier, Barre, and nearby communities.

Three weeks after the flood, food permitting requirements were dropped, and President Charles Plumley dismissed the students a day early to allow for extra travel time over broken roads. According to the Associated Press, half the student body—nearly 150 cadets—traveled by foot to their homes in Vermont, Massachusetts, and surrounding areas.

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