'Historic and Catastrophic' : Unrelenting Rain Swamped Vermont's Cities, Towns and Hamlets. The Recovery Is Just Beginning. | Seven Days Vermont

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'Historic and Catastrophic' : Unrelenting Rain Swamped Vermont's Cities, Towns and Hamlets. The Recovery Is Just Beginning. 

Published July 11, 2023 at 10:44 p.m. | Updated July 19, 2023 at 9:56 a.m.

click to enlarge Downtown Montpelier - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Downtown Montpelier

Vermonters were reeling after two days of torrential rain brought widespread flooding to rural towns, swamped the Capital City, trapped residents and destroyed livelihoods. 

The deluge drew comparisons to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, a $750 million catastrophe whose memory still haunts Vermonters as the worst flood in nearly a century. In some areas, this week's rains were even worse, and with more wet weather forecast for the days ahead, additional flooding was possible.

Scientists have said human-caused climate change will only increase the likelihood of such strong — and destructive — storms.

Near Montpelier, the Winooski River crested two feet above Irene's levels as floodwaters turned downtown streets into muddy canals and slammed debris against city bridges. Flash floods damaged homes up and down the state's mountainous spine, damaging some structures that had been rebuilt after Irene to withstand major floods. Rain destroyed crops and swept away pets and livestock. Countless roads were washed out, and officials closed a stretch of Interstate 89 in Washington County overnight on Monday into Tuesday morning, forcing scores of stranded drivers to sleep in cars or makeshift shelters. Severe flooding occurred from Weston and Ludlow in the south to Johnson in the north, though Burlington was spared.

click to enlarge Downtown Montpelier - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Downtown Montpelier

No deaths or injuries had been recorded as of Tuesday evening, but dozens of emergency responders had conducted more than 175 rescue operations and were continuing to scour the state by boat and by air. In Barre, a van taking homeless people to a shelter was overcome by high water; the people in it were helped to safety. 

President Joe Biden, in Europe to meet with NATO leaders on Tuesday, declared a state of emergency in Vermont, unlocking federal dollars for what will certainly be a long recovery effort.

"Make no mistake, the devastation and flooding we're experiencing across Vermont is historic and catastrophic," Gov. Phil Scott said at a press conference on Tuesday. "This is nowhere near over," he cautioned.

The slow-moving storm swept into Vermont after pounding parts of Pennsylvania and New York's Hudson Valley. Between six and eight inches of rain pummeled southern Vermont between Sunday afternoon and Monday. The tiny town of Plymouth recorded more than nine inches, according to National Weather Service data. The storm continued into central Vermont, dropping nearly eight inches in Barre and only slightly less in Montpelier. 

Officials said on Tuesday that towns in the southern Green Mountains and the Barre-Montpelier area appeared to be hit hardest. Main Street in Ludlow became a raging river. In Woodstock, the White Cottage snack bar, a burger joint that was rebuilt 25 feet farther from the Ottauquechee River after it was destroyed by Irene, was again overrun, its kitchen appliances tipped over by floodwaters. 

Help Wanted

click to enlarge Nancy Ramos' cows in her home - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Nancy Ramos' cows in her home

Near Chester, a Windsor County town of 3,000, Nancy Ramos lost many of her livestock when the Williams River overflowed its banks on Monday afternoon.

She had moved most of her eight children into a school bus on higher ground and shepherded the surviving cows, chickens and ducks inside her house. Some of the pigs she raises were missing, as were the rabbits — Fluffalufagis II, Snowflake, Puddin and others — who lived in a barn. A family house cat, Pumpkin, jumped from the arms of Ramos' 11-year-old daughter, Bella, as she tried to rescue it and was swept away.

click to enlarge Nancy Ramos and her daughter embracing outside their home - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Nancy Ramos and her daughter embracing outside their home

Ramos hugged her weeping daughter as she recounted the story. "She's not doing so well," the mother explained.

She relied on neighbors to help move her livestock as water covered nearby roads. "There ain't nobody who can come help us," Ramos said. 

The American Red Cross opened emergency shelters in Barre, Rutland and White River Junction. More than a dozen other shelters popped up in churches, schools and elsewhere around the state. After cascading water forced the overnight closure of I-89, at least a hundred travelers spent the night at the Maplewood Travelers Service Center in Berlin, many in their cars. 

click to enlarge Extreme flash flooding and road washout on Route 103 near Chester - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Extreme flash flooding and road washout on Route 103 near Chester

Flooding in Chelsea prompted the Riverbend Residential Care Home to evacuate 20 residents to a nearby church, where they spent Monday night alongside 10 travelers seeking shelter from the storm. An expected delivery of Red Cross cots had not arrived by the time ambulances began dropping off the nursing home residents, so volunteers put out a call to the community. Neighbors quickly showed up with cots and air mattresses, according to Errol Hinton, pastor of the United Church of Chelsea. "Within an hour, every resident was comfortable, tucked in and settled in for the night," he said. 

Hinton cooked burgers and hot dogs for dinner for the unusual congregation, then eggs and bacon for breakfast. "And people are still dropping off food," he said. 

More than 200 people were staying in the Red Cross-operated shelter inside Barre Municipal Auditorium on Tuesday morning. Others awaited rides there from smaller shelters in nearby towns. 

click to enlarge Amy Young checking on her car - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Amy Young checking on her car

Kayakers crisscrossed the city's American flag-adorned Main Street as cars floated about. Amy Young, a stylist at Magnifique Salon, said her car was submerged on Monday. "It happened so fast," she said on Tuesday.

She looked forlornly at the vehicle just out of her reach and said, "At least I have insurance."

Vermont's 13 swift-water rescue teams were aided by squads that arrived from states as far away as North Carolina, officials said. They retrieved residents trapped in homes and on top of cars, including some who failed to heed travel warnings. State officials said responders from New Hampshire performed a risky, middle-of-the-night rescue in Waterbury of a woman who tried to drive around a barricade and was overtaken by a strong current. 

Small-Town Harm

click to enlarge Flood damage around Main Street in Barre - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Flood damage around Main Street in Barre

Scenes of flooded thoroughfares and town centers could be found up and down the state. The Chittenden County town of Richmond, which is bisected by the Winooski River, was largely impassable on Tuesday morning after floodwaters shut down the interstate exit and choked off most roads leading into the burg.  

Along Route 2 in Richmond, a large brown pond covered most of Robin Yandell's 20-acre farm. Yandell didn't seem overly concerned; Irene also flooded her property, she said, and her 19th-century home, atop a knoll, had survived that and the notorious flood of 1927 unscathed. Still, the water had risen a good amount since she got up around 3 a.m. on Tuesday and was threatening to spill into her barn, where she keeps two horses and some chickens. "I'm just watching it," she said, before continuing her morning chores.

click to enlarge Downtown Johnson - RACHEL HELLMAN
  • Rachel Hellman
  • Downtown Johnson

In the Lamoille County town of Johnson, the Gihon River, typically a calm, scenic waterway, spilled its banks and left much of the downtown underwater. Residents said floodwater rose to over six feet on Railroad Street early on Tuesday.

Johnson's Sterling Market — the town's sole grocery store — was flooded almost to its ceiling. The market opened in 2013, two years after flooding from Tropical Storm Irene badly damaged Grand Union, a grocery store in the same location.

Residents stood near their flooded downtown on Tuesday, watching the water recede. A child blew bubbles by the water's edge while police monitored the scene.

"I ain't swimming to work," a man shouted from his porch, surrounded by water.

Kat Aupperlee, whose elderly parents had been evacuated, arrived downtown to take stock of the damage. The first floor of her parents' home was flooded. Aupperlee said she hadn't seen water this high since a 1995 flood devastated Johnson.

"They say this is a thousand-year storm," a passerby declared. "Or is it a hundred-year storm? A 10-year storm?"

click to enlarge Josh Decker and Jeremy Ayers bringing Decker's dog to safety in Waterbury - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Josh Decker and Jeremy Ayers bringing Decker's dog to safety in Waterbury

Some residents were evacuated and spent the night at the local campus of Vermont State University. A few returned with kayaks or canoes and paddled off to pick up belongings and pets.

Half the village lacked power. Houses where electrical infrastructure was submerged will have to be inspected before the power can be restored, said Jeffrey Parsons, an apprentice line worker with Johnson's Water & Light Department who was helping out downtown.

Over the past decade, residents of Johnson have poured energy and money into revitalizing the downtown, so the damage is a setback. Parsons worried that Sterling Market would close, which would be, he said, "a huge loss to the village."

Two Cats, Clothes and a Violin

click to enlarge Cally Abbott (left) and her brother Hazen watching the Winooski River flow across Bridge Street in Richmond - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Cally Abbott (left) and her brother Hazen watching the Winooski River flow across Bridge Street in Richmond

As they did during and after Irene, neighbors helped neighbors.

Waterbury residents Jeremy and Georgia Ayers sent a group text on Monday asking for help relocating their belongings to their second floor. Nearly 20 people arrived, including members of the town's CrossFit gym, who lugged 40-pound bags of wood pellets up the stairs. 

The couple were able to move everything — dressers, mattresses, and even their stove and refrigerator — before fleeing to a friend's home. Jeremy returned home at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday with his canoe and ferried a stranded neighbor and two dogs to safety. His was one of several watercraft lined up next to Prohibition Pig in downtown Waterbury, available for residents to use. 

click to enlarge Downtown Waterbury - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Downtown Waterbury

The floodwaters there weren't as high as during Irene, some residents said, but some homes and businesses still flooded. 

Elm Street in Waterbury was already underwater when Shannon and Matt Gile evacuated their apartment at 8 p.m. on Monday. The couple grabbed their two cats, some clothes and Shannon's violin and headed to a family member's home in South Burlington.

On Tuesday, they returned to find three inches of water in their apartment.

"You could see stuff in different rooms that must have floated into a different room," Matt said. "We've got some mushy passports now."

click to enlarge The state office complex in Waterbury was not flooded. - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • The state office complex in Waterbury was not flooded.

The Giles were among a handful of people at the waterlogged junction of Elm and North Main streets on Tuesday, one of several sections of flooded roadway in the central Vermont community. Fire trucks and wooden barriers blocked off parts of Route 2, including at the rotary near I-89, where onlookers gathered to watch drivers make convoluted maneuvers to get back to dry land.

The Giles borrowed a green canoe that somebody had delivered for community use to grab some more clothing and cat litter before heading back north.

The state office complex in Waterbury, which was destroyed by Irene and later reconstructed, was high and dry this time around, though water approached the complex. Still, the state relocated its emergency operations from Waterbury to Berlin because of road closures. Gov. Scott, who lives in Berlin, said he began his commute on Tuesday by hiking on dirt trails; the roads surrounding his home had all flooded. 

Unrelenting Rain

click to enlarge The Lamoille River in Fairfax - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • The Lamoille River in Fairfax

Unlike Irene, which unfolded in less than a day, this week's storm stretched over two days and struck as soils were already saturated from recent summer rains. As a result, the Winooski River near Montpelier swelled to over 21 feet by Tuesday morning, nearly four feet above major flood stage and higher than at any point since the 1927 flood, when it reached 27 feet. 

The submerged streets in downtown Montpelier on Tuesday morning evoked that historic flood. The water also reached the doors of Montpelier High School, on the river's southern bank, to the shock of school custodian Belinda Matheson. 

"Oh, my God!" she yelled. "My school!"

Matheson said she worried about the tennis courts, track, sports fields, school gardens and chicken coop. "All of it's gone," she said.

click to enlarge A swift-water rescue team from New York returning from a call for assistance in Montpelier on Tuesday - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
  • A swift-water rescue team from New York returning from a call for assistance in Montpelier on Tuesday

As Matheson took photos of the school, swift-water rescuers from New York State pulled their inflatable boat from the water after investigating a report of a family trapped on Elm Street. Nick Bresette of the Montpelier Fire Department said teams had performed about a dozen rescues over 24 hours. They retrieved one person trapped on a car roof, another who got stuck after driving into floodwater on North State Street and a third who was having a cardiac issue.

"It's been a long night," he said as he sipped coffee.

Tuesday morning brought fresh anxieties when city officials warned that the nearby Wrightsville Dam was approaching its capacity. The 115-foot-high dam was constructed following the 1927 flood to control water flow into the Winooski River from the North Branch tributary.

Never in the dam's history had its emergency spillway been needed, but city officials had warned residents during the night of the risk of increased flows in the North Branch, which cuts right through the heart of downtown, should floodwaters overtop it. That prompted some residents to evacuate. 

click to enlarge A CNN crew in Montpelier - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
  • A CNN crew in Montpelier

The dam's waters had risen to within a foot of the spillway as of Tuesday afternoon. "At this time, it is difficult to determine if there will be a spillway activation," Vermont Emergency Management public information officer Mark Bosma wrote in an email. 

As the day wore on, the sun emerged and residents began exploring their soaked city by foot, bike, kayak, canoe and standup paddleboard. Fire alarms shrieked incessantly as helicopters buzzed overhead and the odor of leaked gasoline permeated the air.

Montpelier entrepreneur Kelly Tackett and her three children huddled in the shade of a tree in a flooded downtown parking lot. They had come to check on her business, a children's toy and clothing store called Minikin, but couldn't get to it.

click to enlarge Main Street in Montpelier - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Main Street in Montpelier

Tackett convinced a kayaker to photograph the shop for her.

The night before, she and her children — Laurel, 11; Leif, 7; and Pema, 4 — had lifted what items they could off the floor of the business. But the kayaker's photos soon confirmed her fears. They showed several inches of water throughout the store, soaking the legs of a $1,000 crib and other items.

Tackett signed the lease for the shop just as the pandemic hit, but business hasn't bounced back, she said. Now she can't see how to recover from this. She choked up as she discussed a store that had been her dream and began sobbing as she described financial setback after financial setback. 

"I just feel in shock, and I feel like it's probably the end of the store," she said.

Leif gave his mother a hug and rubbed her back. Pema showed her some berries from the tree. Her tears kept flowing.

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