Come Hell or High Water

We could never have foreseen the surreal quality of our trip from the North Woods of Maine to Brattleboro, Vermont, on August 29, 2011. The car radio told us of the impending Hurricane Irene, and, thinking that we were hardy New Englanders, we had only to consider our route home to avoid the less savvy drivers. So, we took the long way through the back roads of Vermont. Bad choice. We were turned back and rerouted multiple times, and we ended up stranded in Bethel, Maine. We jumped out of our hotel bed at dawn the next day to rush home as the news, YouTube, and frantic texts and e-mails offered a hint as to the carnage that would await us. Our home in Deerfield, Massachusetts, narrowly avoided the floodwaters, but our business in Brattleboro, Vermont, did not. The Flat Street Pub took in six feet of water and was essentially destroyed by Irene’s wrath. The business did not hold flood insurance; losses eventually exceeded $300,000. Sweat equity was not included in the tally.

Arriving in Brattleboro the day after the hurricane, we sloshed through the mud and tried our best to comprehend the devastation. The water had mostly receded, but about a foot of mud remained. Everything had been upended—even stand-up refrigerators and freezers. We couldn’t face the start of the cleanup process. The task at hand was overwhelming.

But, the next day we returned and had a dumpster delivered to the front door. The building had no power, and we realized that all perishables would quickly go rancid. So with a headlamp and flashlight, I started in the kitchen. Soon, I was joined by many volunteer employees (we’d made it clear that payroll would have to be suspended) and some of our regular customers. It was a sign of things to come.

Over the Labor Day weekend, we were inundated with volunteers from the community. We got more dumpsters. We hauled out tables, chairs, kitchen equipment, pots, pans, and dishes. Neighbors and friends volunteered box trucks and storage space. Absolutely everything that was not attached to the building came out to the street and was either tossed into a dumpster or washed and loaded onto box trucks. My wife Linda Cushing McInerney ’80 organized the volunteers and washed every object to remove the gooey, inexorable glaze of mud. (Among our many volunteer friends were locals Stephen Carmichael ’80 and his wife, Dede Cummings ’79.)

After a week of hard labor, we had the entire space cleaned out. Our landlord brought in an industrial cleaning crew to remove the mud, wet sheetrock, and wood floors. After two weeks, the cleanup was competed. (The power would return a month later.) Then came the decision point—should we try to reopen, or should we throw in the towel?

Our decision was not based on numbers. Shuttering the business was probably the smarter financial move. But as owners, we felt an obligation to the community. We were endlessly reminded that the Flat Street Pub was an important gathering place and a community and cultural institution that formed a critical component of the town’s social fabric. Many recalled the time that we opened early (and unannounced) for the Obama inauguration and had an elbow-to elbow, standing-room-only crowd, a symbol of the way people felt about the place.

With a rewritten, lower priced lease (one of the many helping hands from our landlord) and a $100,000 low-interest loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority, we set about starting the rebuild in October. Sweat equity cut our reconstruction expense in half. We opened the bar on December 15. We reopened the kitchen on February 23, 2012.

The Flat Street Pub is back in business.

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