The normal flow of the White River in east–central Vermont is roughly 300 cubic feet per second. On the evening of Sunday, Aug. 28, the flow was almost 50,000 cubic feet per second.

That was at the height of the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene. The White River National Fish Hatchery was inundated. It was inaccessible by road for days. Much of its infrastructure was buried in up to eight feet of mud and silt.

“It was really something to behold,” says hatchery manager Ken Gillette. It took him two days to reach the facility, where water had risen to the tops of circular pools’ doorways. The flood killed 40 to 50 percent of the Atlantic salmon brood stock and 40,000 of the 500,000 lake trout the hatchery raises. Gillette knew the hatchery needed help to get back on its feet.

So, Refuge System heavy equipment operators from across the Northeast Region were called in.

Bob Springfield of Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, MA, was among the first to arrive—on Sept. 7. “It was very wet with misty rain, and the mud was soupy. It was like scooping pancake batter for a couple of days,” he says. “And the dead fish were still around, so the smell was pretty bad.”

Over the next three weeks, a Refuge System heavy equipment contingent that included Springfield; Roger Dutch of Edwin B. Forsythe Refuge, NJ; Joe Bertrand of Missisquoi Refuge, VT; Steven Zadroga of Great Meadows Refuge, MA; Steven Branstetter of Long Island Refuge Complex, NY; Mike Krug of Moosehorn Refuge, ME; and Kirk Cote of Aroostook Refuge, ME; moved millions of pounds of muck to higher ground on hatchery property.

Bill Starke, the Northeast regional heavy equipment coordinator who mobilized personnel for the intra–agency cleanup operation, reports that his maintenance crews removed 629 loads of material in 15–yard dump trucks for a total of 9,435 cubic yards. Gillette figures that is 17 million pounds (8,500 tons) of mud. To make it happen, several Refuge System backhoes, dump trucks, skid steers, excavators, bulldozers and even a rented Bobcat (to get into tight spots) were used.

“They have been great,” Gillette says of the Refuge System equipment operators. “They just kind of asked me what I needed done. They just said, ‘Point the way.’ They did it all.” In addition to removing sludge, the heavy equipment crews worked with at least a dozen loads of stone to repair the hatchery’s roads. And they leveled off the ground before departing in late September.

“It really shows what the maintenance people in Region 5 can accomplish when given a task,” says Starke, who notes that the experience also provided valuable training to the Refuge System crews.

“You do feel like you’re helping out almost members of the family,” Springfield says of the intra–Service cooperation. The hatchery staff was “so friendly and nice up there, you felt welcome.”

The hatchery still has a ways to go. It reopened on a limited basis in October. The Atlantic salmon brood loss will decrease the number of fry the hatchery will introduce into the Connecticut River this season. The lake trout loss will reduce the hatchery’s ability to provide stock for Lakes Erie and Ontario. Contamination tests and disinfection measures must be done for the whole facility. There is a lot of mechanical and infrastructure evaluation and repair ahead. But the hatchery is on the road toward recovery.

When asked a month after the flood how long it might have taken the hatchery to begin to rebound without Refuge System help, Gillette replies: “It depends on who we might have been able to contract with. But, to be frank with you, I think we’d still probably be in the mud.”