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Washed out roads and a shared community: Calais residents look back on summer flood damage

A dirt road washed out and a river running through it
Toby Talbot
Martin Road in Calais was washed out by a flowing river in July 2023 as a part of widespread flooding across the state.

All over Vermont, town clerks are preparing their town reports, which means looking forward to next year’s budget, and taking stock of the previous year. For most Vermont towns this will include assessing their response to July's 100-year flood. Barbara Butler, assistant town clerk in Calais, put out a request for a someone in town to prepare a narrative report on the Calais flood response. Reporter Erica Heilman, together with her friend and neighbor Tobin Anderson, answered the call.

Calais has 78 miles of road and only three are paved. The road damage in town was significant.

Here’s a sampling of what Erica and Tobin heard from people in Calais, starting with John Stafford, foreman of the Calais road crew.

This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.
John Stafford: In the beginning of the flood? Oh, you want to do it that way, then? OK. At the beginning of the flood we all were on County Road. Six, seven trees and power lines — that was the first indication of the storm and there was a couple culverts over flooding right away. We were on a washout on West Church where the culvert just blew out of the road and down into a field.

Erica Heilman: This is Peter Dailey.

Peter Dailey: Backing down Moscow Woods to go bring gravel to a hole that we were supposed to fill and then when we got there it was not, we weren't gonna be able to do it with our trucks, not with a couple loads. The size of that hole was ridiculously huge.

John Stafford: It was like a cowboy movie. There was no road. It was just gone.

Tobin Anderson: Bliss Road?

John Stafford: Bliss Road was probably the worst.

Tobin Anderson: It was a pit.

John Stafford: Bliss Road actually, there was actually people who went to Bliss Pond — they were panning for gold. It was that deep, yeah. It was that deep they were actually panning for gold down in there.

Erica Heilman: Did they find any?

John Stafford: No we couldn’t hang around. We were busy.

John Stafford: All the kids — these are letters from the elementary school.

Erica Heilman: This is Tyler Stecker.

Tyler Stecker: They’re pretty cool.

John Stafford: "Dear Road Crew. Thank you for working so hard on fixing the road so we can go to the places we want to. With eternal gratitude, Rowan."

Erica Heilman: Eternal!

Tyler Stecker: (Laughter) That was my favorite. "We’re very thankful this didn't happen" and it’s a flaming car jumping over a hole.

Erica Heilman: Alright gentlemen, we have taken too much of your time. Thank you very, very much.

Man standing at precipice of dirt road that is washed out and has become a 15 foot pit
Toby Talbot
Bliss Pond Road, a dirt road, was washed out after the July 2023 flooding, creating a 15-foot deep pit.

Erica Heilman: We drove over to talk with Alice Seavey-Windsinger, who lives on Route 14 with her goats and chickens and bees.

Alice Seavey-Windsinger: I'm on Kingsbury Branch, as you can see. It became my whole backyard. Six feet. And buildings were washing away — with animals in them. We lost a couple of chickens because they're not very smart. And people that were not chicken people were trying to help me. And so they were doing what they thought they needed to do, but the birds were getting away from them and then falling in the water and getting swept away. But I only lost three out of 135. So, yay us.

But my other animals were on the other side of the river and I had no way to get to them. I also, that's where I store most of my feed. I couldn't get to Tractor Supply because Pekin Branch was underwater. I couldn't get to Tractor Supply in Morrisville because the roads were gone in Hardwick. I had no way to get animal food. And people in the village started like, just emptying their refrigerators and freezers and bringing me stuff for the animals, like cooked rice and food scraps and stale bread, anything they could find.

I have different sizes and ages of goats. And early on, when the water was like waist deep, people were still able to pick up the smaller goats. But my last two were bigger and heavier and panicking, because goats don't do water. And I stayed in the barn with the two girls and tried to keep them calm. My husband and the neighbor, Jim, got the canoe and waded out and we stuck the end of the canoe right into the barn. And I was able to get them into the canoe. And then my husband took them all the way from over here, all the way down the river to my parents’ property and got them safe. I lost my bees, which broke my heart but, we had made the decision: Save goats first, chickens second, bees third.

Erica Heilman: This is kind of a book report question but—

Alice Seavey-Windsinger: Go for it.

Erica Heilman: What do you think you learned about Calais?

Alice Seavey-Windsinger: I learned that this community cares. I'm gonna get choked up. I mean, people I didn't even know just showed up. That doesn't happen everywhere. I came back to Calais for a reason. I grew up right there, and I got a chance to come back.

Goats! Usually they're screaming at me at this time. Yes, I have 21 goats. They're over there. I have eight of them that free range. (Shouting at the goats). Usually they’d be over by that tractor coming in and out of the barn. I don't know. (Shouting) Curiosity!

(Goat noises)
Alice Seavey-Windsinger: Oh, are you? OK. I'll be right over.

Man standing in washed out road that has become a gully about 9 feet deep
Toby Talbot
Bliss Pond Road after the July 2023 flooding event.

Erica Heilman: We drove over to the Maple Corner Store to talk with Jamie Moorby, general manager of the store, also select board member, and at the time of the flood she was one of two acting road commissioners, and she was managing volunteers at the Curtis Dam.

Jamie Moorby: I had been meeting with the head of Vermont Dam Safety on the Curtis Pond Dam at 11 o'clock that night, making a plan for how to save the dam from going down in the flood. And when I was leaving at maybe around 1 in the morning, there was a car in the parking lot. And it was people from out of town who had been diverted off of 89 in Barre, and were trying to get to Burlington and found themselves in Maple Corner. But there were a lot of those stories of people passing through who got stuck here. There was an emergency select board meeting that night, or the next night. And at the end of it, this couple came in who nobody recognized, and we said, "Hi, how can we help you?" and they said, "Can you just help us find a pavement?" (Laughter). They were just, like, lost on the back roads of Calais.

Erica Heilman: This is Calais emergency response manager Toby Talbot.

Toby Talbot: Well there's 73 miles of road in town and I would say at least a third of them were damaged and impacted, and probably five or six were completely impassable. So we weren't in a hurry to fix driveways. So a lot of people called and said, "When are you coming by to fix the end of my driveway so I can get out?" and it's like, we said, "Call your neighbor with a tractor. Have him drag some gravel out of your driveway and make a temporary fix and when we get to your road, we'll deal with what we would normally deal with. But you're not a high priority."

Erica Heilman: So another really good reason to be nice to your neighbors with bucket loaders.

Toby Talbot: Yes. Always have a friend with a tractor. Or a chainsaw. Chainsaw or a tractor.

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

Corrected: February 27, 2024 at 9:51 AM EST
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Toby Talbot's name in one instance.
Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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