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Key state buildings in Montpelier could remain inaccessible for months

Tubes snake out of the upper floors of a building
Calley Hastings
The Pavilion Building in Montpelier, which houses the governor's office, pictured in recovery from flood damage in late July.

July’s historic floods caused enormous damage to Montpelier’s downtown business community and several nearby residential neighborhoods.

The two-day flooding event also had a significant impact on a number of state office buildings and some of these buildings might not be reopened to the public for up to a year.

Vermont Public’s senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel joined Mary Williams Engisch for an overview of how the operations of the state government have been affected by the floods. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Many of us might have seen photos or video footage on social media of some of the extensive flood damage to the businesses and homes in in Montpelier. Although some people might not be aware of how hard important state buildings were hit. Bob, can you give us an overview of what happened there?

Bob Kinzel: Sure, Mary. On the evening of Monday, July 10, I was leaving our office at the Capitol Plaza Hotel. It was around 8:30 p.m., or so I looked at State Street and I saw that it had been transformed into a river that had a very strong current that was perhaps 3 or 4 feet deep. It was amazing.

State Buildings Commissioner Jennifer Fitch told me recently that a total of 18 state buildings were damaged by these floodwaters, and three buildings that might be familiar to our listeners — the Pavilion office building, the nearby Vermont Supreme Court building, and a building known as 133 State Street that's just on the other side of the Statehouse, where the tax department is located. Commissioner Fitch says all of these buildings suffered enormous flood damage:

"We had about 8 to 9 feet of water or so in the basement," Fitch said. "So imagine the sub basement is below that. And we pumped those basements out as quickly as we could, but it still took about four to five days to get all the floodwater out of those three major buildings. And so as a result of that all of those building systems will need to be replaced."

And Mary, the commissioner says that because of supply chain issues, it could be months before the state will be able to find the essential elevator parts and electrical equipment that it needs to repair these buildings.


Bob, state officials are just beginning that planning process to bring these buildings back online. And it's interesting, after this flood compared to what I remember post-Tropical Storm Irene, I'm hearing a lot more robust discussions from communities about structural changes and also acknowledging future flooding, like that this is climate change. What are you hearing?

Mary, I'm hearing exactly the same thing. Commissioner Fitch says this is a very top priority. And she says it makes no sense to simply put things back the way they were. But making changes could take some time:

"That planning effort will likely take probably three to six months in terms of making some high-level decisions about how we want to move forward," Fitch said. "And then I'm sure there are some planning efforts that will take, you know, anywhere from six to nine months before we determine what we're going to recommend for each of these different buildings."

Commissioner Fitch says it's possible that there could be some temporary access to these buildings in the coming months. But in order for that to happen, any services would have to be available on the first floor so that the state is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Right. And, Bob, there's one building a lot of us have spent time in over the years: the Department of Motor Vehicles. How was that building impacted by floodwaters?

Mary, this is a real success story. It reopened this week. Commissioner Fitch says this is because steps were taken several years ago to mitigate possible flood damage.

"The big work that they did is they basically excavated around the foundation of that building," Fitch said. "And then they flood-proofed it. So they sealed all of the foundations so when water comes up against it, right, it doesn't have the ability to seep into the building. And then secondarily, they put in some pumps. So if water were to get into the basement, your sump pump works right to take all that water out."

This is a very important development because it means that most of State Street is reopened to traffic, but not all of it. Because there's still a lot of work going on in front of the Pavilion office building.

And Bob, what's the status of the federal building in Montpelier right now?

It's not good. That's where the Montpelier post office is located. It might be closed for at least a year. Postal officials are looking for a temporary facility at this time. Right now, there are several mobile trucks in a parking lot at the former Vermont College campus that are accepting mail and providing services for folks with P.O. boxes.

The golden dome of the Vermont capitol rises over a flooded street
Mike Dougherty
Vermont Public
The golden dome of the Vermont Statehouse rises over a flooded street in downtown Montpelier on Tuesday.

And you mentioned one of the hardest-hit state buildings in Montpelier was the Vermont Supreme Court. The court still plans to operate during this rebuilding period. How are they going to do that?

Mary, the future of the court is a little uncertain at this time. Emily Wetherell is the deputy clerk for the Supreme Court. She told me the court luckily does have some time to work on a contingency plan:

"Normally, hearings that we would have in the courtroom are the full court hearings," Wetherell said. "And we don't have any of those scheduled until the end of September. So I guess the court will have to see when the calendar for that goes out in a few weeks. Whether those hearings will be somewhere else or be remote."

The court is expected to have a plan in place in about a month. They might consider opening a temporary location at another courthouse in Vermont.

And the building that houses the Vermont Tax Department also closed down for many months. How is the department planning to provide services to Vermonters during this time period?

Tax Commissioner Craig Bolio told me that his department is actually in pretty good shape, and that it learned a lot about how to conduct remote work during the COVID pandemic. So, for the foreseeable future, the tax department has moved its processing headquarters to the National Life Building, just outside of downtown Montpelier:

"That's able to house all of the folks that we have on our staff that have to work in-person," Bolio said. "We've moved one of our big scanners up there, and all of the things that we need to do those critical in-person tasks, and those folks are already back to work. Getting all of that stuff done."

Bolio says in-person drop-off services are not available for the time being, but that could change in the coming months.

And Bob, we've relied on you to provide up-to-the-minute accurate news on the ground of the flooding in Montpelier. And you live in Montpelier. I can't imagine that it's been easy. How has it been for you to cover this story?

Mary, it's been very tough on a number of different levels. Montpelier has been my home for the last 45 years.

I've witnessed two previous floods: the ice jam flood in 1992, and Irene in 2011. But the damage this year is the worst than it's ever been.

And it raises questions about how many of the 100 downtown businesses will actually decide to reopen and what will happen to the dozens of houses that have had significant damage.

And maybe the biggest question of all is, what steps can be taken to protect Montpelier against future flooding? There's tremendous community support to rebuild the city. But there's also a cloud of uncertainty that hangs over Montpelier at this time.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.
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