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Middlebury takes stock of last week's flood damage: 'We did get whacked'

A road with a large hole in it. Fallen tree and road debris inside the hole.
Angelo Lynn
Addison Independent
A large section of Route 116 in Middlebury collapsed early Friday morning after water from a swollen Dow Pond near the former Polymers plastic plant flowed across the highway by 1 a.m.

After catastrophic flooding swept Vermont last month, the state received even more torrential rain last week.

Rutland City was inundated with flash floods on Friday. Though more than two dozen residents had to evacuated, officials say the city's infrastructure escaped largely undamaged.

The Thursday before, Addison County was hit with even more downpours. Middlebury received up to 6 inches of rain in the span of hours, leading to road closures and rescues.

To learn more, Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke with John McCright, news editor at the Addison Independent. She started by asking him to describe the scene in Middlebury last week. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A selfie of a man with white hair and in a grey pullover.
John McCright
John McCright

John McCright: Well, they talked about us getting a month's worth of rain in just a single evening — and it felt like it too. I happened to be on my bike riding home when the rain started and thought, "Oh, this is unpleasant." Then it got harder and harder and harder until there was rain pelting against the windows. There was some hail. Then we saw water streaming down the lawn and the driveway, lots of lightning, lots of wind. Particularly in Middlebury, where our police chief said it seemed like the storm just came and parked over Middlebury and was there for three or four hours just whaling on us. It was really crazy. About six inches of rain later, it slowed down. We went out to see what was going on, and just saw streams where there never been streams, and not puddles — but lakes. That was all Thursday night.

In July, when the central part of Vermont got completely deluged, people from out of state called me and said, "Hey, how was the flooding? It sounds awful." I said, "Well, it was really different parts of the state. It wasn't Middlebury so much." Then this week, I got to call them and say, "Actually, this time it was us. We did get whacked." Middlebury, in particular, I think partly because it's a population center. Partly, just because it's right next to the mountains and that's where the the raincloud stopped and dumped a lot of rain. It was just a catastrophic amount of rain.

Mary Williams Engisch: Was it your understanding that that was mostly from flash flooding? That wasn't from rising rivers or Otter Creek overflowing?

Right. That was one thing on Friday morning, when I got up, I thought, "Geez, I gotta figure out what's going on with Otter Creek because it's gotta be overflowing." It really wasn't. It was flowing very fast, and it's going over the falls and Middlebury very fast — but it wasn't reaching its banks. It was just that the water came so fast that the water distribution system couldn't handle it. There was so much water in the ground too. There were places that normally would not have got terribly wet because it was soaked in, but it had nowhere to soak.

In one part of Middlebury on Elm Street and Seymour Street, there is a an underpass that goes under a railroad trestle. It is probably, what, 15 to 20 feet high, and the water just sunk down there and couldn't get out. The water rose three quarters of the way up, that had to be 10 to 15 feet high. Someone who was going through got stuck. The police chief told us that one of his officers had to go in, waded into the water, broke a window and pulled the person out because they were just so surprised by the amount of water was there. We went the next morning hours later, and it was just a normal amount of water on the road. I mean, a couple inches, it was so fast that it was overwhelming.

A mini stream of water forms in near and into someone's drive-way. A red barn house it depicted in the background, alongside a truck and a forest of trees. You can also see the river flowing in the background.
Christopher Ross
Addison Independent
The quick and plentiful rainfall on Thursday night resulted in water flowing downhill everywhere in Middlebury. Here water flows across Seymore Street near the Pulp Mill Bridge Friday morning destroying some property on its way down to fill a driveway before continuing on to Otter Creek.

John, right before we started speaking, because you're on Zoom, you were able to show a can of water. I understand that there still may be some boil water notices in your area. Can you talk a bit about some general infrastructure damage and impacts?

A beverage company makes bottled water and donated it to the Red Cross, who brought pallets and pallets and pallets of six packs of water. It's kind of weird having cans of water, but there it is. There was a main water line that goes alongside that road that then broke, and they put it in a quick temporary line. But the problem with a temporary line is it also could get contaminated with bacteria and other things. They have a boil water notice from that line north, which includes my house. They say, hopefully, within two weeks we can get that fixed. There's 3,000 people along the line north on Route 116. They're out of luck. We'll have to boil water for like a couple of weeks,

The state agencies are really urging Vermonters with any kind of flood damage to report it, They'll keep repeating: call 2-1-1. Because doing that helps the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, gather data and then help decide whether a county qualifies as a federal disaster area, opening up government funding.

So far, Addison County not making that cut. I understand this new round of rain might not even be within the timeframe to be counted for a disaster declaration. What's your understanding of that process?

We've talked to Governor [Phil] Scott's people and they're as confused as we are about it. They're thinking, "Ah, we should get Addison County because of what happened in the middle of July." But we didn't yet, that's why people are urged to contact 2-1-1 and report their damage, which we have. The town of Middlebury said, "We're going to ask for our own declaration for this storm because it was bad enough, hopefully with this just one storm."

Part of the confusion is the time frame for natural disasters. Some people say that a natural disaster that FEMA covers is really always like a day or two, maybe three. So, FEMA might say, "You know, this is a different storm. This needs to be something different." So it could take longer. They could deny it. They could just tack us on to the original one. It's still up in the air. It's kind of a mystery.

A dirt driveway looks dug up, and features exposed rocks after flooding.
John S. McCright
Addison Independent
A Middlebury resident assesses the damage to her driveway wrought by the six-inch rainfall that visited Addison County’s shire town Thursday evening.

Well, John, just one more question. We've been hearing from individuals and families after the flooding in certain counties. They feel left out, left behind when it comes to assistance. What's the overall feeling like in Addison County as folks recover from both last week's flooding, and then last month as well?

I think people are kind of resigned to it, especially after they saw how bad central Vermont got hit a couple of weeks ago. Changes in the weather and the climate means this is going to happen more often. And people think this is going to happen. We haven't had any loss of life. And I'm sure people are appreciative of that. Property can replace; it's a pain in the neck. I saw people at stores getting cleanup materials, and they were kind of resigned to it. They feel left out, I think, if FEMA doesn't come through with any kind of reimbursements — they will feel left out.

But at this point, I think they're just rallying around each other. I've heard of so many people offering, "What can I do to help you?" I think people are are doing OK, but it's only been four or five days. Let's see what happens after a couple more weeks. I can't believe it's raining today. There's rain, a lot more rain forecast for tomorrow. There's a little bit of rain forecast almost every day this week. Which if you could see me, I'm rolling my eyes. This is this part of summer this is [supposed to be] dry. So it's kind of a new world.

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