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Hope, and lives, rebuilt after Irene

Brought together by a storm that destroyed their homes, Vermonters find reason to celebrate this Christmas in each other

Photos by Bill Greene/Globe Staff

“All these people that helped me are now family,’’ Don Fielder said of volunteers, relatives, and friends.

STOCKBRIDGE, Vt. - Two structures stand on the wooded bank of the White River where Don Fielder has resided for 29 years, one signifying disaster and despair, the other hope and human kindness.

One is the gutted frame of what was his home until the day four months ago when the river, swollen by the torrential rains of Tropical Storm Irene, rushed over the bank, tore through windows and walls, filled tubs and sinks with thick mud, and destroyed anything that stood in its path. The house Fielder cannot talk about without crying.

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Next to this hulk rises the nearly completed frame of the brand-new home that more than three dozen volunteers - some of them strangers - have helped him build; he hopes to celebrate Christmas there today.

No one in the quiet towns nestled between the White River and the Green Mountain foothills will soon forget the surging waters that devoured roads, snapped trees like matchsticks, and tossed sofas, pianos, cars, trucks, lampposts, and gravestones like bathtub toys.

But something positive has risen in the wake of this destruction. Strangers have become friends. Friends have become family. People who lost nearly everything have helped others who lost as much.

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“Many people have made a difference,’’ Fielder said. “And it’s going on all over the state.’’

One week ago, Fielder, accompanied by relatives whom he had rarely seen until Irene struck, hauled heavy windows from the old house to the new. He served homemade Christmas cookies someone had left for him. He reached into a bag of gifts and handed them out to anyone who pitched in.

‘Many people have made a difference, and it’s going on all over the state.’

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“All these people that helped me are now family,’’ he said.

Families who before the storm could not imagine Christmas anywhere but in the homes where they had gathered for generations helped each other prepare for makeshift celebrations in temporary quarters.

“We don’t care about the petty stuff anymore,’’ Nancy DeLeon said before attending the annual Christmas candlelight celebration at the Stockbridge Meeting House last Sunday. “We just want to help each other.’’

Irene caused mayhem, destruction, and deaths when it hit the Eastern Seaboard in late August. Thousands of Massachusetts residents lost power.

In Vermont, four people died as a result of the storm, which washed out more than 2,000 roads and bridges and ravaged hundreds and farms and businesses, according to the office of US Senator Bernie Sanders. Irene also destroyed or damaged 1,500 homes, said Jennifer Hollar, chairwoman of the Irene Housing Task Force. About 900 households are still in temporary housing, she said.

Rochester was particularly hard-hit. The waters filled the foundations of dozens of homes and disinterred coffins at the local cemetery; many of the remains have yet to be found. The wreckage is still present, physical and emotional.

“My house used to be Christmas central,’’ said Mary Sue Crowley, whose 181-year-old farmhouse in Rochester was gutted by the surging river as she, her husband, and their son watched in horror from inside. As the water rose far above the levels of the many floods they have endured, they retreated to higher ground until they were upstairs, contemplating whether to jump out and swim to dry land.

The Crowleys are staying at a neighbor’s house. They will probably get a Christmas tree.

“But we’re not going to be back to normal for a long, long time,’’ said Crowley, who is principal of the Rochester School, which was also damaged in the flood. She spends her day job overseeing the restoration of the school, then works on her own house after hours. The school has students whose houses were destroyed; one boy came to Crowley’s office sobbing because it was raining and he thought he would have to go through it all again.

“The water receded, we’re fixing our homes, but the shock has not faded,’’ said Connie Mendell, who watched with her husband, Dean, as the waters breached the bank of Breakneck Brook and tore through the ground floor of their Rochester home.

People pitched in to help each other. The Mendells opened the freezer of their restaurant and served free meals. A Home Depot truck drove around and dropped off generators, free of charge. The other day, someone from an organization of businesses that is raising money for flood victims came by to see how much money the Mendells needed.

Connie Mendell sees in all that a silver lining.

“As bad as it was, as much as it hurt, as much as it’s going to cost, it’s been a good experience,’’ she said in her daughter’s home in Stockbridge, a 200-year-old house that also suffered serious damage. “We got to know each other, and it’s been a good experience.’’

She said this, then frowned, recalling a Christmas party she had attended the night before.

“I got so depressed,’’ she said. “I’m an elf usually [at Christmas]. I’m always making cookies and things. But right now I don’t have the energy.’’

Don Fielder, too, was depressed the day he admitted to himself that the home he still calls “a magical place’’ was beyond repair.

“Don was at the bottom,’’ said his cousin, Shaun, who came last Sunday with his son, Ethan, and a friend, Keith Brown, to help build the new house. The cousins had rarely seen each other over the years, but when Shaun Fielder found out the house had been wrecked, he assembled a team of volunteers who pitched in on weekends and days off. In October, he brought the camper for his cousin, who had been sleeping in a tent.

Don Fielder recalled how a man walked in off the street, identified himself as a roofer, and offered to help install a roof on the new house.

Fielder’s gaze fell briefly on the river, a green trickle, now sprinkled with ice floes, that would have seemed incapable of causing much mayhem were it not for the ruins on the bank. He never considered moving somewhere else.

“This is my home,’’ Fielder said. “This is where I belong.’’

David Filipov can be reached at dfilipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov. Bill Greene can be reached at bgreene@globe.com.
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