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'Like we don't exist': Rural Vermont feels left out of flood recovery effort

A man in a cap with his arm on a dumpster, with a woman and a camper behind him.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Bernie and Pam Dopp's trailer in Barton was inundated by the flood last month. Dopp said the only help he's gotten so far has come from a small group of local volunteers.

Flood survivors in Orleans County have finally been added to the list of people that are eligible for individual assistance from FEMA, but the long wait for federal help is just one of the hurdles to disaster recovery in the rural Northeast Kingdom.

The flood has exposed stark geographic inequities in Vermont’s disaster response system as hard-hit residents like Bernie Dopp attempt to rebuild their lives in regions with limited recovery resources.

On July 10, Dopp’s blue trailer on Route 16 in Barton became one with the river that snakes though his backyard.

“It’s been a real nightmare man, when you take 25 years of your life raising your kids in one place, and overnight it’s gone,” Dopp said last week. “It’s almost worse than a fire to me, and now when I hear raindrops, I’m petrified.”

It hurts Dopp to say it, but the structure is probably a total loss.

“We made 25 years of goodness out of this place,” he said. “This old trailer’s done us well — took care of us as well as we took care of it.”

A bathtub spray painted with the words, 'Hey FEMA.'
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
A spray painted bathtub in Glover. Residents of Orleans County waited more than two weeks to be added to the list of counties that are eligible for individual assistance.

Dopp and his wife, Pam, and their son, Travis, have been living in an old camper parked on the driveway for the past two and a half weeks, pondering their next move as they haul water-logged belongings into a dumpster on the front lawn.

Dopp is a lifelong resident of the Northeast Kingdom who’s accustomed to solving his own problems. He figured out pretty quickly, however, that he’d need some help recovering from the flood.

The only aid he’s gotten so far has come from the strangers who showed up at his front door a day after the flood.

“If it weren’t for these few people, I’ll tell you what, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” Dopp said.

Those “few people” are with a local organization called Northeast Kingdom Organizing. And if you talk to enough flood survivors in Barton, Glover, Coventry and other towns in Orleans County, it won’t take long to figure out that NEKO, as the group is known here, is shouldering the bulk of the flood-recovery load.

Director Meghan Wayland is one of two paid staffers at the organization.

“It seemed like we knew how to do the first part of this really, really well, which is reach people who are hard to reach. That’s what we do,” Wayland said. “And now we’re coordinating dumpsters somehow.”

Northeast Kingdom Organizing launched in 2015 as a community-building enterprise focused on economic, social and environmental justice. When it became clear that no one from municipal, state or federal government was going to provide direct support for flooded out residents, NEKO transformed, on the fly, into the de facto disaster-response agency for Orleans County.

“We ask these questions — 'What do you need this day? What do you need this week? What do you need this month? And what are your long-term goals?'” Wayland said. “And there’s a lot of times we don’t get past, ‘What do you need today?’ It’s, ‘We need seven refilled buckets of water. I’m home alone. I’ve got three kids and I don’t have a way to get out of my house.’”

Three people standing behind a folding table holding supplies for flood victims.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Northeast Kingdom Organizing volunteers El Stone, Penny Thomas and Alyssa May, from left, at a supply distribution hub in the village of Orleans.

The problem, Wayland said, is that she and the 10 or so volunteers she works with aren’t built for disaster recovery. There’s no way they can sustain the long days they’ve been putting in — Wayland’s been getting as little as three hours of sleep a night.

But there’s also no one to hand off to.

“We were either handed it all, or we took it on, or no one else was here to hold it, so we held it,” Wayland said. “And now we’ve got it here in our hands, and it’s so much weight that the next step is to say, 'Okay who’s out here around us? Who can hold which piece and let us hand it off so we can do the thing we’re good at, which is to continue to go door to door, to continue to organize.'”

The challenges of disaster response in rural areas have been the subject of numerous studies.

Limited funding at the local level means municipalities lack staffing, equipment and training. Diffuse development patterns make it harder and more expensive to reach affected households, which, according to census data, tend to be older and poorer than residents in more densely populated areas.

According to the Center for American Progress, rural communities receive a tiny fraction of federal funding for resilience projects, so they’re more vulnerable to the kind of severe floods that swept through Vermont last month.

Craftsbury Rep. Katherine Sims said the lack of resources in the Kingdom has been palpable.

“It’s really hard way out here, where we just have a few folks who are doing this on top of their day job,” she said.

Items in a basement in disarray.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
A flood-ravaged basement in Glover.

Sims represents the Orleans County towns of Craftsbury, Glover, Greensboro and Albany in the Vermont House of Representatives. The flood, she said, has shown that they lack the critical mass of human resources needed to mount an effective disaster response.

“It sort of highlights systemic vulnerabilities that have been there all along but brings them to the forefront, like vulnerable Vermonters who are living in really vulnerable situations in flood plains,” Sims said.

Sims said the Northeast Kingdom’s experience during the flood spotlights the need for regional disaster-response agencies that can spring into action when the next catastrophe hits.

Lawmakers and the governor recently allocated $3 million so that underserved communities could hire outside experts to facilitate the development of housing, transportation, water and sewer infrastructure.

Sims said the state needs to make similar investments in rural disaster resiliency.

“Folks can be tempted to sort of write off rural communities — 'Hey, it’s sparsely populated, they’re way out there, why does it matter?' These communities make Vermont what it is,” she said.

Patsy Tompkins runs a meals-delivery program for older residents that was flooded out of its kitchen in the Glover Town Hall.

A woman standing in front of an industrial kitchen
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Patsy Tompkins, at a temporary meal preparation site in Barton.

“It’s like sometimes we feel like we don’t exist, this area, Orleans County, the Northeast Kingdom,” Tompkins said.

In the best of times, she said, the Kingdom can be a tough environment for low-income seniors.

“And then the flood hit, and I mean, there’s some places that are just, they’re not going to be able to live there,” she said.

Tompkins has found a temporary site in Barton to make the thousand or so meals a month that she and other volunteers prepare. And she said locals are pulling together and doing what they can.

But she said residents and businesses have been pretty much on their own as they attempt to recover from the worst natural disaster anyone here can remember.

“Even one house or business that was destroyed is so vital to this area,” Tompkins said. “Poverty is a big thing here, and transportation.”

Sims said she plans to address the issue of disaster response in rural Vermont during the next legislative session. In the meantime, residents here will do their best to rebuild, largely on their own.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:


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