The Great Flood, Hereabouts

The Great Flood, Hereabouts

A persistent and surreptitious storm caused the great flood of 1982: no lightening or wind to speak of, just rain.

But it rained as it is supposed to rain only once in every 500 years, i.e., perhaps four times since Christ walked the earth. In a day and a half, on the weekend of June 5 and 6, it rained as much on the towns of the lower Connecticut River as it normally does in four months. Other places got rain, but not like we did. If anyone saw it coming, they kept mum. Many didn't see it until well after it had arrived.

People went about their business on Saturday and Sunday: shopping or visiting, going out to dinner, to the bars or the movies. But before they knew it, the reliable landscape they took for granted had changed. They couldn't get to where they were going or get back to where they had come from — at least, not the same way.

The old New England witticism, "you can't get there from here," wasn't so funny now. Not a few people and their cars were cut off entirely and would be stranded for days by small rivers and streams that had swollen and raged almost beyond imagining.

One family in Ivoryton left their children with a baby sitter and couldn't get home. The father finally made it back on foot, through the woods, trudging knee deep in water. Five people leaving a bar in that village found themselves stranded on a precarious islet in the torrent that the Falls River suddenly had become. The rain burst several dams upstream, sending a wall of water that destroyed or severely damaged a dozen homes, ravaged several factories and put hundreds of people out of work for weeks. A couple in a nearby house spied the revelers in trouble, strung together some rope and a cushion, and threw them a lifeline. They pulled them to their house, which itself was an island, its basement full to the brim with muddy water. They all were lucky. A woman in East Haddam died when the vehicle she was riding in tumbled into a stream you could normally hop across in two giant steps without getting your feet wet.

The factories along the Falls River disgorged lumber and, in one case, golf clubs, which people found scattered about town for weeks afterward. Centerbrook Architects lost several buildings that it rebuilt on piers; they survived the 100-year flood of 2010 nicely (yes, time does fly, it seems, of late). Many roads in the various towns looked like they had been hit with mortars, deliberately and effectively.

Bridges tumbled into the water as though they were constructed of popsicle sticks. There are bridge parts yet in the woods along the Eightmile River in East Haddam, where I have lived since 1979. One bridge was rebuilt permanently up river only a few years ago; another downriver is simply no more.

My first inkling that something was not right came on Sunday as I watched the water overflowing the banks of the Eight Mile and advancing across the hayfield toward our house. The river was 200 yards away, but the grey fury kept rising. My wife and I had bought a rickety farmhouse; and although it sat on a little rise, I felt that it was time to go.

To help me on my way, a friend, Dick Lehr, then a reporter for this newspaper, called me. He was assigned to the story and suggested we cover it together. I would be the wheelman. Although I was the co-owner of The Gazette, a weekly newspaper in Old Lyme at the time, this basic journalistic notion — reporting on the floods — had not occurred to me for some reason. Fortunately, my partner Chip Bates and our staff were already on the case.

Dick and I meandered about, often having to backtrack, taking the long way around. What we saw was astounding: houses that had been moved off their foundations as if nudged by some giant's elbow; cars submerged in the middle of roads or leaning jauntily at 45-degree angles against trees; Godzilla-sized bites taken out of roads paralleling hitherto unoffending rivulets. And everywhere people were out, starting to put things back in order or just marveling at the devastation.

That week's Gazette sold out in hours, so we hastily put out a 12-page special edition, 5,000 copies, lots of photos, 50 cents apiece (big money then). They were gone in a day.

The storm didn't even have a name.