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'I've never seen anything like it:' Sen. Bernie Sanders reflects on Vermont floods

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tours flood damage in Barre on Wednesday afternoon. “This is really horrific, and I’m just thinking about the kind of expense involved in having to do cleanup,” he said.
Joey Palumbo
Vermont Public
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., toured flood damage in Barre on Wednesday afternoon.

More flood relief funding from the federal government will flow into Vermont in the coming weeks, following President Joe Biden's decision Friday to sign a major disaster declaration for Vermont.

"This means that a broad range of federal funds will now be available to Vermonters and our communities to help us recover from the flooding," Sanders said Friday. "Together, we will get through this.”

Vermont Public's Mikaela Lefrak sat down with Sanders at his Burlington office on Friday. He described his priorities in assisting with flood relief, and his experiences touring Barre and Montpelier earlier in the week. He visited the hard-hit cities alongside Gov. Phil Scott and the other members of Vermont's congressional delegation, Sen. Peter Welch and Rep. Becca Balint.

The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: The congressional delegation has been on the ground here in Vermont a lot this week. Could you tell us a little bit about what you saw earlier when you visited Barre?

Sen. Bernie Sanders: I actually, to be honest with you, I've never seen anything like it. We saw streets which were all mud, and the mud seeped into the homes. All of the homes had two, three, four feet of water in the basement, [and] massive amounts of damage. ... In Montpelier, we talked to shop owners, small business people, some of whom will not reopen. They were really devastated.

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What was really nice in Montpelier is to see that level of community support — volunteers coming out, helping the owners clean up their shops. And that was a nice thing to see. But we're talking about, as a state now, thousands of homes and businesses that have been damaged, not to mention all of the public infrastructure, roads and bridges, that were damaged. So this is quite a catastrophe.

A person pushes a wheelbarrow
Mike Dougherty
Vermont Public
Caitlin Mather carries cleanup supplies down State Street in Montpelier on Wednesday morning.

And talk to us about the federal aid that will be coming in. President Biden approved Gov. Scott's request for a major disaster declaration — what does that mean for Vermonters?

That's a big deal. And I really do appreciate the president's quick action on this. ... With that declaration, now all of the federal agencies, including HUD, the Small Business Administration, FEMA, etc., will be able to use all of their resources to provide help to Vermonters who have seen damage. So the good news is that the declaration has been approved. And our job is to make sure that that help comes in as quickly, as effectively, and as non-bureaucratically as possible.

And, you know, one of the problems is, you've got so many agencies and you've got so many programs within the agencies. It can become complicated for a United States senator, not to mention an ordinary homeowner who is dealing with damage. So what all of us in the delegation and governor's office are going to try to do is simplify the process, [and] get the word out to people [about] how they could take advantage of these various programs.

Now, Senator, you mentioned rebuilding efforts. I talked to one woman in Hardwick today who owns an inn that was essentially swept entirely into the river. And she said, "we're not going to rebuild, not just because we don't have the funds, but because the land where the inn was doesn't exist anymore." What are your thoughts on having these tough discussions? About not when to rebuild, but if we should?

Look, this is a discussion that is not going to be limited to Vermont. ... Because climate change is very real. I mean, we are seeing unprecedented weather disturbances not just in Vermont. You're seeing it in Texas right now in the heatwave. So that is a fundamental question — how do we go forward in the future? Do you do what you did yesterday? Rebuild in the same places in the same way? I don't think so. Alright, so what do you do? I don't have all the answers. But this is clearly an issue that we're going to have to be really thinking through.

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What do you have to say to Vermonters who experienced this during [Tropical Storm] Irene in 2011 and are now having to face the exact same challenges again?

I mean, I was in Barre, and what you see with your own eyes — people's lives have been severely impacted. Talk to people just don't have a lot of money who've lost thousands and thousands of dollars and have to repair their homes. Business people are going to lose their businesses. We've got a major, what is called an existential threat for a real reason. [Climate change] is an existential threat. We've got to get our act together.

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I want to return just for a moment to some of the short-term concerns that some Vermonters might have, particularly around insurance. For those Vermonters who are lucky enough to have flood insurance, but might be struggling in the days and weeks ahead to get a rapid response from those insurance companies, what can you do to support them?

We're going to do our best, a little bit — not what most Senate offices are going to do, but we'll do it. Reach out to the insurance companies and ask them to respond to the needs as generously and as quickly as they can. Very often insurance companies like to take the money, they don't like to pay it out. So we're going to do what we can to make sure that they pay out what people are entitled to.

But I gotta say, a lot of people do not have flood insurance, which takes us back to FEMA, which I think will end up providing more support to homeowners than any other entity. And then we're going to make sure that they operate effectively.

Oh, the one point that I do want to make, before I forget again, is if people are going to apply for relief, for help, they have got to document, document, document. You can't go in and say, "Well, I had, you know, $12,000 worth of damage." You've got to demonstrate that through photographs, videos, whatever it may be. So the message is: Please document, document, document.

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Well, Senator, I know you have a lot of business to attend to in Washington, but what are your plans for the days and weeks ahead? Will you be back here in Vermont?

Yeah, we will be. I think I'm gonna be — I'm not sure, it depends on what's going on with the White House. We may be there on Monday, but if not, I'll be here on Monday. This weekend I think we're going down to Ludlow tomorrow [Saturday], and I will be getting around the state. I don't know what I can do personally, but I think it's important for people to understand that I, Sen. Welch [and] Congresswoman Balint do understand what's going on, and we're gonna do everything we can to provide the support that the federal government can.

 A man wearing glasses sits behind a desk
Bob Kinzel
Vermont Public
Forced out of his typical office at the Pavilion Building in Montpelier due to flood damage, Gov. Phil Scott sits at a temporary desk at the Vermont emergency operations center in Berlin on Thursday.

How do you think Gov. Scott's doing in his in his role right now leading the state?

I think he's doing very well and we've been working closely — the whole delegation has been working closely with not only him, but his team.

And you know, I want to just repeat what I've said before. I just want to thank — because I think all Vermonters do — the incredible efforts on the part of the road crews, the emergency crews who have been out there rescuing people, keeping the roads open, doing all of the enormously important work that they have done. These are real heroes and heroines. And I know that the people of Vermont are very grateful for all that they're doing.

Well, Sen. Sanders, thank you so much for your time.

Sanders: Thank you. Pleasure.

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Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources

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      Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
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