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A Cambridge couple on losing memories in the floods and rebuilding amid uncertainty

Old photos showing people formal wear lie on paper towels to dry in the front seat of a car.
Pearl Dennis
Pearl Dennis and Erik Holcomb's old photographs dry in the front seat of a car after their home in Cambridge village flooded last July. They lost a lot of important, costly items, and their utilities were wrecked. But they also lost things that Dennis said can't be replaced. "Don't leave your memories in a box in the basement," she said.

Pearl Dennis and her partner Erik Holcomb live in an old Victorian house in Cambridge village, near where the Seymour River meets the Lamoille.

When floodwaters filled their home last July, Holcomb stayed to save their hardwood floors. Now, after being flooded twice in one year — despite their house not being located in one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mapped flood hazard areas — they’re trying to get funding to elevate their historic home.

Vermont Public’s Abagael Giles went to Cambridge to hear where things stand a year later. She spoke with Dennis at her home. 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.

Pearl Dennis: My name is Pearl Dennis and we're in Cambridge village. We live right here off of Route 15. And we are discussing the rebuilding and aftermath of the July flooding.

Abagael Giles: Can you refresh me again, just for the sake of you know, today, on like, what you guys encountered when you came back to your house?

Pearl Dennis: It was just trashed. I mean, it was just garbage. We had 8 to 10 inches of standing water in our first floor, after the basement was already filled up.

So, we tried to move as much as we could of our electronics and important things when we knew the flood was coming, in preparation. But then, you know, there's just so much stuff. It's a home that we've lived in for almost 10 years.

So in the days following, we had to sort through that stuff and, you know, throw out boxes and boxes of personal memories, photo albums. You know, what have you — clothing, furniture, all that little materialistic stuff that, you know, gives you the pleasures of life that were now gone.

A woman in a green tank top and white pants smiles and stands in front of a house with a wraparound porch with construction materials on it.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Pearl Dennis in front of her Cambridge home in late June 2024. She and Erik had just gotten new drywall installed on the first floor, after looking at exposed insulation all winter. At the time of this interview, they were still cooking on a hot plate, almost a year after their kitchen was destroyed by flooding.
A woman stands on a porch crowded with bags, furniture and other items
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Pearl Dennis takes a break from pumping and salvaging on the porch of her flooded Cambridge home on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

Erik Holcomb, my other half, he actually stayed here during the whole flood. Really, I think his efforts of staying here kind of saved our house, because that extra silt and stuff from the waters wasn't able to collect and form on our floors. So luckily, we were able to salvage our original wood floors.

This is a house that was built in 1850, so those extra details are really special to us.

The view of Cambridge village  from a flooded porch, with muddy floodwater filling the streets and a red-orange sunset.
Erik Holcomb, courtesy
Holcomb took this photo of the sunset from their porch on July 11, 2023.

We were flooded again in December, right before Christmas, and we still had not moved our electrical box upstairs, which we have now done. We came within inches of losing all of the HVAC stuff that we had just completed, which is thousands and thousands of dollars. We do plan on moving our hot water on-demand tank upstairs.

Abagael Giles: Can you tell me just a little bit about what the aftermath of that event was like?

Pearl Dennis: It was doing a lot of paperwork. We spent hours and hours and hours, like probably months, if you were to accumulate it all, just trying to navigate the stuff with FEMA and then the stuff with the state of Vermont, Efficiency Vermont.

And, just a lot of repetitiveness, which eats up a lot of time, which is really, really difficult when you're trying to rebuild at the same time, but also having to do that in order to get financing in order to rebuild.

More from Vermont Public: For some Vermont flood survivors, FEMA was the second major disaster last year

We know that we have to raise our home here. We've been flooded four times in the last 15 years. We have an option to do the buyout, which means they'll completely tear down our property, which then removes the tax revenue for the town and the state.

Or, you have the option to try to have them help you raise your house. And so we want to do the raise-your-house thing. But from people that were dealing with [Tropical Storm] Irene, some of them are just barely getting those funds now. And that was 11 — 13 years ago, right? So like, how many more floods are we going to have in the time that it takes for us to get these funds allocated to us?

A lot of the people who are in charge and making these decisions, it seems like they're just as lost as we are. It's just a battle where I feel like we're just constantly spinning our wheels trying to get things done in a timely manner, and just being shut down and being shut down and being shut down.

Two photos side-by-side, one of muddy brown floodwater rising along a narrow hallway with doors, white walls and framed paintings hanging along it. The other is of a kitchen floor with a thin film of mud on the hardwood, that looks as though someone has started to scrub it off.
Erik Holcomb and Pearl Dennis
Even though last year's floods filled the first floor of Dennis and Holcomb's home with 10-12 inches of muddy water, they were able to salvage their original hardwood floors.

Abagael Giles: What's been the impact of that for you, emotionally? Feel free to punt that question if you'd rather not.

Pearl Dennis: It can be such a heavy burden all the time. You're trying to decide, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I not doing the right thing?” You know, so you're always second guessing yourself. Like, should I just sell the house, take the buyout? Or do I keep investing my life into saving this home that we've created?

Also, the fact that it's a historic Victorian home is really important to us, because that's why we bought it. It was kind of our dream home. And we feel like we need to be stewards for all the people and families that lived here going back to the beginning of time, you know?

Muddy floodwater from the Lamoille and Seymour Rivers rises over the porch at a Cambridge home. The photo is taken from the porch, looking out. You can just see the tip of a neighbor's white picket fence over the water line.
Erik Holcomb
Holcomb, who stayed at their home during the worst of the flooding while Dennis evacuated, took this photo from their porch on July 11, just before floodwaters rose up and into the first floor.

I just keep saying, “Hey, look: Today, every day, is just a little bit better. You know, yesterday, we had all of that stuff that sucked that we had to deal with. But, look, we got this done, that done. Today's a little bit better.”

More from Vermont Public: The connection between extreme rain and climate change in Vermont

Abagael Giles: Is there anything that you learned or that would have been helpful to you?

Pearl Dennis: Upgrade your utilities as soon as possible. So many of us live in these old houses in Vermont, where everything was stored in the basement. And for houses that you thought were safe, far away from the river, not in the path of the stream, the reality is that if it's going to happen, it's going to affect your basement and ruin your utilities.

So move everything up. Don't keep your memories in a box in the basement.

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


Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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