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'We just are stuck': Flood survivors in southern VT face hurdles to recovery

A two-story house sitting precariously close to the edge of a recently flooded river.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Dana Ladd's house, in Jamaica, sits precariously close to the river that carried away her lawn during the July floods. Ladd is hoping to qualify for a buyout, but says she's having trouble getting the information she needs to figure out her near-term living situation.

The challenges facing residents and businessowners in the path of the July floods are in many cases as acute now as on the day the waters receded, and many of them are finding that state and federal supports aren’t always a source of relief.

From some angles, Dana Ladd’s home in Jamaica appears to be situated directly above the river that winds past it. The odd sight isn’t that much of an illusion.

The flood that inundated her two-story home last month also carried away the lawn on two sides. And when Ladd first laid eyes on the property after it was safe to return, she encountered the same scene she found after Irene, in 2011.

“I knew the time, the money, and everything that was going to go into fix it, and I just lost it,” Ladd said recently. “I took about 10 minutes and just cried.”

There are 25 years’ worth of memories at the house that Ladd shares with her son, daughter-in-law and two young grandsons. But after two 100-year floods in a span of 12 years, the sentimental tug is gone.

“We just are stuck. We don’t know what to do.”
Jamaica flood survivor Dana Ladd

“I’m not attached to that house anymore. It’s kind of an anchor around my neck at this point. It’s gone. I’m done. I’m done with it at this point,” she said. “So I’m hoping for the buyout.”

Getting that buyout, however, has been its own kind of disaster. Ladd is trying to navigate a half-dozen or so bureaucracies that are involved in the process, including the town government, FEMA, her flood insurance company, Vermont Emergency Management, the United State Department of Agriculture and her bank.

She said she can’t get basic answers to simple questions.

“There’s such an intersection of them all and there’s no crossover, so if you’re waiting on one, you’re still waiting on the other three,” she said.

Which means Ladd lacks the information she needs to make some of the most important financial decisions of her life. Someone from FEMA told her that the foundation on her house is probably compromised. But the flood insurer hasn’t been out to verify that assessment yet.

If the structure isn’t safe, then Ladd needs to find alternate housing for the winter. But if it is deemed habitable, and she doesn’t get a buyout, then she’ll be wasting money on a rental that would otherwise go to repairs.

A wood-floored room with the sheetrock cut away from the first two feet of the walls.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Water inundated the first floor of Donna and Andy Chambers' home in Londonderry. The structure won't be suitable for habitation until January at the earliest.

According to the state, it could take homeowners more than a year to find out if they qualify for a buyout.

“We just are stuck,” Ladd said. “We don’t know what to do.”

For Vermonters who weren’t in the path of the floods, the disaster is fading to memory. For the more than 2,500 residents who suffered direct damage, however, the event is very much ongoing.

Tammy Mosher is the director of a nonprofit called the Stratton Community Foundation, that serves rural towns in Windham, Bennington and Rutland counties. She said the path to flood recovery for many flood survivors in this region has been arduous.

“I mean these people have been waiting for so long,” she said. “And they’re exhausted.”

Mosher said she has no interest in criticizing FEMA or the state or anyone else involved in the recovery process. But she said bureaucratic protocols can make it difficult for flood survivors to move on with their lives.

“You need to fix something to get open, but you can’t fix it until you get FEMA’s money, but FEMA’s requiring you to have the receipts,” she said. “So it’s just a little bit of a juggling game. You know, we’re not asking for much.”

Donna and Andy Chambers bought their house in Londonderry eight years ago, in part because it was perched so close to the West River.

The historic structure has been standing for almost 200 years, but it’s been uninhabitable since the river hit a height of more than a foot in the first floor last month.

Andy Chambers said support from local community members has been astounding. But dealing with FEMA and their flood insurance company, he said, has been “a nightmare.”

A couple standing outside a wood-sided house decorated with ornamental birds
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Donna and Andy Chambers, standing outside their flood-damaged home in Londonderry.

He said the flood insurance adjuster was on site shortly after the flood.

“And she said, ‘Contact me with any questions, and I’ll get back with you and this and that.’ And that’s not the case,” he said. “You contact her and she doesn’t write back for weeks.”

Andy Chambers said the lack of communication and clarity has prevented them from getting the answers they need to figure out what to do next.

“Nobody’s telling us anything about, you know, ‘First you do this, first you do that … and then if this happens, you do this,’” he said. “We have no guidance.”

The Chambers are living in a friend’s house for now, but will have to move out by November. After that, they have no idea. Winter rentals in this popular ski destination are prohibitively expensive. And the sudden loss of financial and housing security for these retirees is taking a toll.

“I made an appointment with a therapist this morning … I called the minister yesterday,” Donna Chambers said. “You’re shellshocked, and you’re expected to deal with insurance and FEMA and everything all at the same time. And it’s overwhelming.”

Disaster recovery can be a slow process. A survey conducted by the University of Houston last year found that 40% of Texans who suffered damage during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 were still struggling with the fallout five years later.

Some residents in Vermont have given up altogether on getting help from the state or federal governments to speed their recoveries.

Tammy Clough and her husband have owned and operated Mike and Tammy’s Main Street Market in Londonderry for the past 17 years. Fans have been whirring inside the popular general store, deli and diner since the river devastated the place last month.

A woman standing inside a general store with a fan to her right and a 'Sorry we're closed' sign to her right.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Tammy Clough, standing inside the general store, deli and diner she's operated for 17 years. Clough says she has little use for the loan the federal government offered her.

Clough said the losses are tough to comprehend.

“My best guestimate is just over $100,000, between the equipment, the product — that’s not even the revenue loss. That’s just stuff,” she said.

Clough was initially hopeful that FEMA would be able to offset those losses. Then she found out the only thing she’s eligible for is a loan from the Small Business Administration.

“It’s a false pretense that we were all under to go register with FEMA. They just want to give you a loan,” Clough said. “And if I could afford to improve my business before, it wouldn’t have taken a flood to go get a loan. And that’s it — they give you a scrub brush and a loan.”

Clough said local volunteers and charitable organizations have been incredibly helpful. But she said they don’t have the capacity to address the scale of need for mom-and-pop businesses like hers.

“You’ve never going to be whole again. All you can do is pick up and move on,” Clough said. “But it seems like everything’s at a standstill. There’s no picking up.”

Nearly two months after the floods hit, the future for Clough and so many others in Vermont remains as uncertain as it was on the day the waters receded.

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


Corrected: September 8, 2023 at 11:02 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the names of Dana Ladd and Andy and Donna Chambers. The audio has been removed until the names can be corrected. We apologize for the errors.
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