How Waterbury residents are recovering after 100-year floods happened twice in 12 years
“We’re standing on Elm Street right now, and Elm Street has probably 2 feet of water on it, and it turns the corner onto Randall Street, and there’s about 2 feet of water most of the way down Randall Street also,” says Brian Kravitz, after getting out of a canoe he’d paddled over to his house.
“17 Randall Street, and uh, it’s flooded,” he says.
It’s Tuesday morning, July 11, the day after it rained so much that rivers crested their banks and ran rampant over the landscape.
That includes the Winooski River, which barreled through parts of Waterbury for the second time in a dozen years. The flooding affected about 15 businesses and more than 150 properties.
Here in the heart of town, the river swamped restaurants and shops, and the houses on Randall and Elm streets.
From where I’m standing talking to Brian, I can see the high water mark from Irene, noted by a plaque on the corner of a building. A couple feet below the plaque, muddy water is lapping at the bricks.
By the following day, the water has receded. Volunteers show up to help pump out basements and remove mud. People begin to assess damage to their homes and businesses.
Janina McCue owns Red Poppy Cakery on Elm Street. She moved into this space just 18 months ago, and is amazed at how the community is showing up to help.
“Everyone’s I think going through the trauma of remembering Irene. And that’s hard to miss, that level of, ‘We’ve done this before, we got this,’ but also the tragedy of seeing it again when they thought they wouldn't in a lifetime be going through it,” she says.
On Randall Street, Lucy Ely Pagan is wearing the same apron and boots she wore 12 years ago when she was cleaning up after Irene.
“It’s just — we’re numb,” she says. “And the only way to survive is really take one step at a time. Because you feel like you want to sit in a corner and cry, but you have to say no, we just have to get up and go.”
Her basement is being emptied by a handful of volunteers — like Lucy’s apron and boots, some of them are the same people who came to help 12 years ago. Lucy says she cried when she saw them again.
Further down the street, 17-year-old Jeswin Antony is standing in front of his family’s home with the contents of their basement.
“So the washer [and] dryer we lost, our chest freezer, some tables from the basement, some power tools. Our water heater tipped over and blew up all over the place, we lost our furnace…”
Jeswin remembers Irene, but they lived in a different part of town back then.
“We saw firsthand the flood but we didn't feel it as much. Now finally getting flooded is painful,” he says.
Irene was a so-called 100-year-storm, which some took to mean that it would be a century before it happened again.
But that’s not the case — it means there’s a 1% chance every year of it happening. In other words: lightning can — and often does — strike the same place twice. And the effects of climate change are causing these events to become even more likely.
At least this time, the flooding wasn’t so bad in Waterbury. Irene was first floors; this was basements.
On Thursday afternoon, a truck picks up propane tanks on Randall Street. By this point, there’s a pile in front of every house. Wood, cardboard boxes, laundry hampers, toys — everything that was ruined by the flood, waiting to be put in dumpsters.
Around the corner on Elm Street, people gather in front of Prohibition Pig, eating lunch donated by local restaurants.
Pro Pig opened their restaurant and brewery here not long after Irene. Before that, the space used to house the Alchemist, renowned brewer of Heady Topper. The Alchemist left this location after the 2011 flood. This week, the owner came back to help clean up Pro Pig.
Across the street, Janina McCue is sitting in front of her cake shop. She says they’ve made good progress so far.
“We have all the sheetrock out, we've done a few kind of mop-throughs," McCue says. "I can see my floor and see through the walls, which is promising that it’ll dry out faster, so feeling as optimistic as I can be that the worst is behind us.”
But it's harder to see what's ahead.
As the weekend rolls around and cleanup continues, Lucy Ely Pagan finds a moment to sit down and begin to process everything that’s happened. Her basement’s been pumped, and she got a dehumidifier. She doesn’t have flood insurance, which she says is too expensive. But she doesn’t even want to think about leaving.
“I can't deny that a little corner of my mind is like, ‘What should I do?' But so far I just love [this community], and I'm putting out there to God to see where I should be. No flood insurance, but I'm still hoping that I can keep my house.”
By July 17, a week after the flooding began, a lot of the trash has been taken away and some of the mud has been cleaned. There’s still a canoe sitting at the end of Elm Street. Jeswin Antony is on his front lawn, power washing plastic bins from his family’s basement. He says things are going OK.
“Yeah, a lot better than it was a couple days ago.”
But he’s thinking about the future.
“We’ve had, you know, now two big floods in a really short span. When I was a kid I heard about the great flood of 1927, and how that was, like, massive. And then we had Irene, and now this again.”
Jeswin hopes there aren’t too many more floods in the future — but he knows there could be.
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Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources
- To apply for federal financial assistance, visit disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.
- Is your community under a boil-water notice? Find a statewide list here.
- For state road closure information, visit newengland511.org or @511VT on Twitter. To check the status of your town's local roads, consult your town website or social media.
- School activities and child care program closures are collected here.
- Find the latest forecasts and water levels for specific rivers from the National Weather Service.
- Are you returning to flooded property? Get tips on what to expect and how to stay safe while cleaning your home or car and how to deal with trash and debris.
- Here are tips for avoiding scams that can crop up after a disaster.
- Flood safety tips have been translated into 16 languages here.
- The Vermont Professionals of Color Network is connecting BIPOC Vermonters with recovery assistance.
- Business owners can find tips and resources from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.
- To find more resources, visit vermont.gov/flood, vermont211.org or call Vermont 2-1-1.
- You can also report flood damage to 2-1-1 to help the state gather data, according to Vermont Emergency Management. (If you are a homeowner, you should also contact your insurance company.)
- The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has provided a resource page for farmers.
- Find the latest guidance about how to help with recovery.