‘I just thought we’d have it figured out by winter’: Vermont still cleaning up from summer floods
Volunteers were still pumping water out of basements from the July floods when another round of flooding hit this week. Those on the front lines point to the need for more durable solutions.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from Sophi Veltrop of Woodbury:
“How are towns hit by 2023 flooding doing? What locally-driven solutions are helping those most harmed and setting the stage to rebuild better?”
Reporter Pete Hirschfeld talks to some of those who were hit hardest over the summer, from a family whose home is still uninhabitable to a woman on dialysis who lives alone. He also explores how local recovery responses are filling the gaps where state and federal aid have fallen short — as Vermont barrels toward a future filled with more severe, and more frequent, flooding events.
Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers, and they may contain errors.
Pete Hirschfeld: This is Brave Little State. I’m Peter Hirschfeld.
It’s late November and I’m wading through a dark basement on the outskirts of downtown Montpelier. There’s ankle-high water and it smells like raw sewage.
Dan Molind: A little stinky down here. I’m not sure that we have power. I don’t know where else we might have—
Pete Hirschfeld: This basement’s been flooded for five months, ever since eight inches of rain drowned this city in the worst flood anyone who lives here can remember.
Dan Molind: So my guess is it leaked in from — it looks like her foundation has been giving way for a while.
Pete Hirschfeld: That’s Dan Molind, a local pastor.
Dan Molind: Yeah. Just be careful where you walk because we don’t know where this might drop off.
Pete Hirschfeld: Dan’s been helping lead volunteer recovery efforts in the area since July. Early on, in the immediate aftermath, there was no shortage of attention on the area. State and national media were broadcasting images of people canoeing down Montpelier’s main street, and sharing stories of the immediate, almost unbelievable devastation.
When I visited last month, the streets were mostly cleaned up. Businesses were starting to reopen.
And then, just a few days before publishing this piece, yet more rain hit the state, and it combined with snowmelt to make things even worse. Generally speaking, the flooding isn’t as severe as what happened over the summer — but there’s no comfort in that fact for people living in hard-hit areas, or who are in more vulnerable situations.
That’s because the crisis caused by the summer floods never went away, even though the water had — temporarily — receded before the latest round of extreme rain. It's been unfolding this whole time. You just had to look a little harder, and walk into a few basements.
Dan Molind: Hmm that’s not good.
Pete Hirschfeld: This basement we’re sloshing around in isn’t Dan’s, but he’s helping the family that lives here — a mom and two teenage boys — get their home back in order.
Dan Molind: You know, everyone’s different. You know? I hate it when we find stuff like this, where there’s still water in the basement, and it’s sort of like, golly, you know? I mean obviously it can’t be too healthy upstairs, you know, with the mold and everything else, you know?
Pete Hirschfeld: You got two kids living up there too, you know?
Dan Molind: Yeah, exactly. It’s just not a great option.
Pete Hirschfeld: For Dan, sometimes recovery work looks like tearing out drywall and insulation to get rid of the mold. Sometimes, it’s replacing an electric panel that got submerged in flood waters and became a fire hazard.
And sometimes — even after so many months — it means a small crew of volunteers firing up a couple sump pumps—
Dan Molind: Hey Terry, you in a safe place I can turn that one on? The white one?
Pete Hirschfeld: —and pumping a foul brew out of the basement of an old house.
Dan Molind: It’s draining good. We’re down 2, 3 inches already.
Pete Hirschfeld: I followed up with Dan after the latest round of rain, and he says the basement is holding up pretty well so far. But getting rid of the standing water was just the beginning. The family that lives there had been without a functioning furnace until Dan’s crew remediated their basement in late November.
So, they’re doing OK, for now. The problem is, there are a lot of other households out there that still don’t have proper heat — or, are still waiting on help.
Josh Crane: From Vermont Public, welcome to Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane. Here on the show, we answer questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, our audience. Today’s winning question prompts us to check in on how we’re doing, five months out from one of the state’s biggest disasters in recent memory.
Caroline Murphy: I almost can’t wrap my head around it. You know. Um. It’s really unbelievable.
Josh Crane: And, well, here’s the big picture: More than 6,000 Vermont households have reported damage to their residences due to the July floods. State and local officials say hundreds are still either displaced, or living in substandard conditions as a result.
And that was all true even before Vermont experienced another major flooding event. Just as our team was finishing this episode about the state of recovery from the last floods, another round of flood damage and school closings and power outages. A mudslide in St. Johnsbury. Evacuations in Moretown.
Phil Scott: As we continue the recovery from this summer's flooding, I know this is the last thing Vermonters want to see right now.
Josh Crane: In this episode, reporter Pete Hirschfeld talks to some of those who were hit hardest over the summer to get a better sense of how they’re faring.
Kari White: There is a huge emotional toll that's being shouldered by survivors of the floods.
Sue Minter: Help can’t come fast enough and it’s extremely frustrating.
Greg Stefanski: People’s lives are still in chaos.
Pat Archambeau: And they’re living in tents, and they’re living in campers, and they’re living in unsafe conditions, and people are going to die. And that’s the reality.
Josh Crane: Pete also explores some of the local recovery responses that are showing the most promise in a state with more severe, and frequent, flooding events.
Pam Wilson: It’s a different kind of labor than, “Hey, call your strong friends and have them bring shovels.”
Kari White: That conversation is now possible in a way it might not have been before.
Josh Crane: We’re a proud member of the NPR network. Welcome.
Pete Hirschfeld: I’ve been a Vermont resident for most of my life, and a reporter here for 20 years. And seeing the city of Montpelier underwater in the early morning hours of July 11, 2023 is definitely one of the most intense experiences I’ve had in this state.
Daybreak was the first time I fully appreciated the scale of the disaster. Maybe it was hearing the eerie buzz of fire alarms that’d been triggered by flood waters. Or watching swift water rescue crews ferry a local woman and her beloved pet rabbit from a submerged apartment building.
And it turns out that as these scenes were playing out, I was only about a tenth of a mile away from today’s winning question-asker:
Sophi Veltrop: Because I was in Montpelier at the time, I couldn’t get home by any roads for, I think it was four days.
Pete Hirschfeld: That’s Sophi Veltrop. Sophi lives in Woodbury — about halfway between the Barre-Montpelier area and Hardwick. She got stuck at her partner’s place in downtown Montpelier during the July floods. And she can vividly recall what she was feeling that morning.
Sophi Veltrop: Uh, definitely shock. And fear — not so much for myself, because I was in a position of safety, but for this town that I love, and being able to see, clearly, people are going to be hurting from this.
Pete Hirschfeld: Like a lot of you out there, Sophi was moved to act in the days right after the flood.
Sophi Veltrop: I spent some time at the Capitol Theatre pulling up carpets with the family who owns it. And then in Barre, we just, like, cleaned up some yards of some homeowners.
Pete Hirschfeld: She’s been following stories about flood recovery in the Vermont media ever since. And a lot of the stuff she’s reading and watching and hearing hasn’t sounded good.
Sophi Veltrop: I think it was just a couple days ago that there was the news on, like, the FEMA funds are based on, like, what your property was valued at. And so people that had lower property values just actually aren’t eligible for the help. And it’s like, aren’t those the people who should be most eligible for the help? So that’s the kind of stuff that’s like — there are big gaps here that are, like, letting the people who are in the most vulnerable situations fall through them.
Pete Hirschfeld: I think a lot of Vermonters, Sophi and me included, probably figured that some combination of state and federal agencies, like FEMA, would swoop in after the flood and get everything at least close to right for the people who were truly devastated.
Sophi Veltrop: I think at the beginning, I had more of a naivete that these systems were already in place to help people get back on their feet. And it would be hard, but that the solutions were there.
Pete Hirschfeld: As Sophi has noticed, that hasn’t exactly been the case. And, so, her question — the one so many of you want answers to as well — stems from her concerns for the wellbeing of flood survivors.
Sophi Veltrop: So, I would like to know how communities who were hit the hardest by the 2023 flooding are doing, now, going into the winter? And what locally driven solutions have been proven effective, both for recovering and rebuilding better?
Pete Hirschfeld: So this is, like, two almost separate things, it feels like.
Sophi Veltrop: Yeah.
Pete Hirschfeld: Like, how are people doing? What’s the state of recovery?
Sophi Veltrop: Yeah.
Pete Hirschfeld: But also, what have we learned from this experience with this flood that we need to incorporate into some sort of systemic reform that, the next time this happens four months on, we’re not talking about, why are all these people that don’t have their houses ready for winter?
Sophi Veltrop: Yeah, yeah. It seems like communities are really reckoning with, “Oh, climate change effects are like, here at our doorstep.” And thinking about that in a new way.
Pete Hirschfeld: So, since we have two distinct questions here, let’s take them in order.
First, how are communities hit hardest by the 2023 floods doing? I took that one to the United Community Church in downtown Johnson last month.
I wanted to find out what the people most involved in recovery efforts have been seeing on the ground.
Sherry Marcelino: I think people are realizing it's not getting better as fast as they wanted it to.
Pete Hirschfeld: Sherry Marcelino is a so-called SOS disaster clinician. “SOS” as in, “Starting Over Strong,” one of the many flood recovery programs that have sprung up in Vermont since the summer. By day, she’s a mental health counselor.
Sherry Marcelino: I think people are realizing, “Wow, it's cold out. And I'm scared because my heat isn't working the way it should. My house isn't insulated the way it should be. Um. I don't have the money in my bank account to fill my fuel tank.”
Greg Stefanski: At this point, being five months out from things, one of the other things I think we've seen with some people is just being frozen.
Pete Hirschfeld: Greg Stefanski is one of the people who started the Lamoille Area Response Network — or “LEARN” as they call it around here. And the people working on these flood recovery groups? They’re mostly local volunteers, like Greg. He says that even for people who have received relief money or other aid, many have not been made whole, or anything close to it.
Greg Stefanski: They've sort of been stuck in this unhealthy, unsafe situation, but safe enough to sort of exist in the space. When they look around the physical space and see sheetrock and insulation torn off from walls, the heater isn't consistently, you know, working. They've maybe had one experience with FEMA, but were overwhelmed by that.
Greg Stefanski: So, how do you want to do this? We could, we can walk.
Pete Hirschfeld: Let’s walk.
Greg Stefanski: OK. OK.
Pete Hirschfeld: Um, yeah.
Greg Stefanski: I’m going to grab my coat, and I’ll leave my other stuff here.
Pete Hirschfeld: I joined Greg earlier this month on a walk on Jonhson’s Main Street — one of the epicenters of the July flood.
Greg Stefanski: So the water was coming from the Gihon, and then the Lamoille is actually back there. So this section here got hit really, really hard. So, we lost our market. Um. The post office also lost their space, but they've been operating out of a mobile unit. But we, you know, we're probably talking a couple of feet of water. This was just a little lake.
You know, you have to look, you know, as we're walking down Railroad Street here, to really see the impact or to see that sign on a door that says the space is condemned. But this is, this crisis is still unfolding. The waters may have receded, the tanks have been cleaned up. But people's lives are still in chaos.
Pete Hirschfeld: We turn onto Railroad Street, which sits on a low-lying zone near the confluence of two major rivers. Greg points out a yellow-sided, two-story home with an official notice on the door warning people not to enter.
Greg Stefanski: This is, this is Rick’s place.
Pete Hirschfeld: “Rick” is Rick Aupperlee. He and his wife Pam are social services workers who are currently renting an apartment in Morrisville, since their Johnson home is still uninhabitable.
Greg says the town doesn’t feel the same without them. Especially not on Halloween, a holiday the Aupperlee’s take seriously.
Greg Stefanski: They have a log of the number of trick-or-treaters that have come to their house every year.
Rick Aupperlee: Well, the highest one we ever had was 420, and that was quite an event.
Pete Hirschfeld: Rick and Pam have been keeping track of trick-or-treaters for a long time. They moved into their Railroad Street home about 35 years ago. It was a big moment in their quest for the Vermont dream.
Rick Aupperlee: I mean, I’m 67 years old, so I grew up at a time when homeownership was part of the process of establishing equity.
Pete Hirschfeld: July wasn’t the family’s first go-round with flooding. In 1995, he says they had about 2 feet of water in the house. This past summer, it was 4 feet.
Rick Aupperlee: And right now it’s sitting empty with no insulation and no sheetrock or any kind of finish to the downstairs. So, it’s, it’s kind of stark when you walk into the house.
Pete Hirschfeld: They can’t live in the house in its current condition. They’re looking into a possible buyout from FEMA. But that process can take months, and even years. Rick says it’s unclear if or when that might happen. And they’re not sure how much they’d get in exchange for the house.
In the meantime, they’ve skipped from temporary living situation to temporary living situation, and have been at the apartment in Morrisville for a couple months now.
Rick Aupperlee: From a perspective of being settled in one place for 34 years, we’ve moved four times now in four months. So, yeah. That’s quite, quite a shift.
Pete Hirschfeld: It’s not just Rick and Pam who’ve been moving around a bunch. They’re also raising their grandkids — a 17-year-old who goes to Lamoille Union High School, and a 6-year-old who attends Johnson Elementary. It’s the kids that Rick is worried about most.
Rick Aupperlee: It’s kind of like, you have an orientation, you have an understanding of where things are and how things go because you’ve been in one place. And I guess the best term to describe — it’s disorientation, now. And it’s taken us a couple of months to get comfortable with the chaos, I guess, is the phrase I use with people. And, you know, that’s a daily thing, really. You never really get comfortable with chaos, but you make adjustments and you make it work.
Pete Hirschfeld: Or, at least, you try to. There are large financial consequences associated with the kind of property loss Rick has experienced. And not just to the house he and Pam had so much equity in. FEMA initially provided the family with assistance for temporary housing. That offer lapsed two months ago, so they’re covering costs out of pocket, for now.
For a couple human services workers, adding a substantial rent check to the monthly household budget isn’t easy.
Rick Aupperlee: It’s going to take time, maybe years, even, to come back from this. This was pretty significant.
Pete Hirschfeld: The problem is that some people can’t wait years. They need help now.
“You feel alone”
Cheri Carr: You want me to show you what I want you to do—
Pete Hirschfeld: Cheri Carr lives alone on a dirt road in West Burke. The 59-year-old Navy veteran grew up in this house, and learned early on how to live close to the bone.
Cheri Carr: I grew up poor. I grew up knowing what it meant to be without. Knowing what it meant to be hungry.
Pete Hirschfeld: The raft of setbacks she’s experienced since groundwater inundated her basement in July, however, is getting to be more than she can handle.
Cheri didn’t have a working furnace before the flood — something she hoped FEMA would be able to help her out with when they came to assess her house.
But the federal agency isn’t conducting its relief program in ways that work for Cheri.
Cheri Carr: The dude called, left a message when I was at dialysis, and he was talking so fast I couldn’t even figure out the number he wanted me to call him back at. So, I need him to call me again. FEMA needs to call me again. Other than that, I’ve pretty much been forgotten about, once they come and cleaned out the basement.
Pete Hirschfeld: So—
Cheri Carr: And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I know everyone’s busy.
Pete Hirschfeld: She says the three-day-a-week dialysis regimen she’s on isn’t the only chronic health condition that makes heating this drafty old house with wood heat alone a dangerous thing for her.
Cheri Carr: I do have end-stage COPD, and that’s why it’s medically necessary not to burn fires or wood smoke, have wood smoke, because it makes it hard to breathe.
Pete Hirschfeld: COPD is “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.” Basically, it makes it hard for Cheri to breathe.
Cheri and I are sitting on an old sofa, listening to a mix of 50s pop, 80s rock and classic Christmas carols.
Cheri Carr: Yes, Kiss, “Rock and Roll All Nite.”
Pete Hirschfeld: As we talk, she’s surrounded by green oxygen tanks.
She says she has received some help of late — like the local volunteers who put plastic over the windows, to try to keep in the heat. But whatever other relief she thought would arrive after the flood hasn’t made it to her home in West Burke.
Cheri Carr: You feel alone, truthfully. And that’s exactly how I feel. I feel like I come home, I sit on the couch and I’m forgotten, truthfully. And it sucks. There’s no bigger alone feeling than feeling like you’re alone.
Pete Hirschfeld: Cheri supports herself mainly on the monthly check she receives from Social Security disability insurance. She says being low-income had made life complicated before the flood. Now, it’s starting to feel impossible.
Cheri Carr: It’s getting harder for me to breathe, so it’s getting harder to get that stuff done — um, taking the trash out of the trash cans, lifting up high up above my head is getting a lot harder.
Pete Hirschfeld: I try to gauge Cheri’s level of optimism about getting a furnace installed before the most extreme winter temperatures arrive in rural Caledonia County, so she can stop burning wood and — quite literally — breathe a little easier.
But, she takes my question in a different direction.
Pete Hirschfeld: What, like, level of confidence do you have that you’re going to be able to—
Cheri Carr: —make it through the winter? If I don’t have help, I’m not very confident I’m going to make it through the winter. I’ll end up getting too tired and quitting.
Pete Hirschfeld: Cheri's situation is bleak. And there are people all across the state in similarly dire circumstances. Some of the folks in their corner are quite literally praying to God for help.
Dan Molind: God, we thank you for gathering us together today, Lord. We thank you for this food, Lord. And when we pray—
Pete Hirschfeld: I’m in a vacant religious school formerly run by Seventh Day Adventists to enjoy lunch with the HOPE Coalition — the recovery group that was pumping water out of the basement at the beginning of this episode. We’re also joined by a crew of Baptists who drove up from Boston to help out for the day.
Pat Archambeau: There are still people in this area who are living without heat, without electricity.
Pete Hirschfeld: Pat Archambeau is one the local HOPE volunteers sitting around the table today. She’s been putting in 40-plus hour weeks since the July flood hit.
Pat Archambeau: I know of a woman in Barre who is in her 80s who is using what we know is a bad electrical panel that has been under water, but it’s her only source of heat. And she’s living in her house.
Pete Hirschfeld: Pat has a profound sense of duty to the people she’s trying to help.
Pat Archambeau: And I go to bed at night and I worry about these people. I worry about them. And I go, “Are we going to get to ’em in time?”
Pete Hirschfeld: And it becomes clear as Pat talks about this stuff that she’s losing patience. She doesn’t understand why FEMA won’t cover all of the damage that was caused by flooding. She doesn’t understand why the state isn’t doing more to bring in out-of-state contractors to help with the backlog of plumbing and heating projects. And she doesn’t understand why state agencies or philanthropic funds aren’t making more money available to groups like HOPE.
Pat Archambeau: And it’s beyond frustrating to me because everybody knew winter was coming. And there are people out there living without water and electricity and heat, and they’re living in tents, and they’re living in campers, and they’re living in unsafe conditions. And people are going to die. And that’s the reality.
Pete Hirschfeld: So, if somebody’s listening to you make that plea: You need to know what’s happening here—
Pat Archambeau: Yeah.
Pete Hirschfeld: —and we need help doing something about it.
Pat Archambeau: We have no money. We’ve written for grants and we’re coming up against walls where they say, “Oh, we aren’t releasing any money yet.” What are you waiting for? Are you waiting until people die? What is it going to take?
Pete Hirschfeld: I want to take a minute here to acknowledge that the work that Pat and others are doing? It’s mostly volunteer work. Vermonters helping Vermonters, neighbors helping neighbors.
And a question I’ve been stuck on as I’ve been working on this story is, what should we make of this? There are so many individuals and small, local organizations rallying to help each other out. Are these stories of triumph, or should we read them as indictments of our governments, and their inability to deliver aid to some of the neediest and most vulnerable disaster survivors?
Pete Hirschfeld: I put that question to Sue Minter, who might have more experience with disaster recovery in Vermont than anyone else in this state. She served as chief flood recovery officer for Vermont after Tropical Storm Irene.
Sue Minter: I don’t think anybody right now who’s involved in really working on this recovery can say that the needs of people who have really been impacted — and there are hundreds, I believe, of folks who are living in homes in substandard conditions in the middle of winter — and there’s no way anyone can call that a model.
Pete Hirschfeld: Sue is now helping oversee recovery efforts in central Vermont as director of a community action group in Barre City called Capstone. She says the volunteer-led recovery groups have been beacons of light during the most recent crisis.
Sue Minter: You know, whether you are handing out meals at our food shelf or delivering them to folks — being actively involved in building a response and bringing volunteers to the fore and actually changing lives, that’s where the light is. That’s where the hope is.
Pete Hirschfeld: Still, she’s frustrated. And she’s spent a lot of time wondering why it’s been so difficult to get this right. Here’s where she’s landed.
Sue Minter: The way that government aid works in this country — especially for a disaster response, but almost all programs that are of emergency nature that we at Capstone work on — there are very narrow rules and requirements to determine if someone is eligible, and that these people need to fit into. And it takes time.
Pete Hirschfeld: Sue says Vermont was also in a different place during Tropical Storm Irene. A dozen years ago, there was more housing available for Vermonters. People could find alternatives.
Sue Minter: And now, preceding this disaster, we had, already, an extreme housing shortage since COVID, on top of a housing, a homeless crisis. And I just consider this a housing disaster.
Kari White: The sort of silver lining, if you will, in this, is that it forces you to reckon with these preexisting gaps and cracks, because people are hurting so badly. And it’s hurting people who—
Pete Hirschfeld: Kari White is executive director of KURRVE, a recovery group in the Northeast Kingdom. Like the other groups, hers emerged in the immediate aftermath of the floods.
Groups like KURRVE are required to become full-on bureaucratic entities in order to work with federal agencies like FEMA, and to draw down grants to help people get as back-to-normal as possible. That means there’s a lot more that goes into their work than draining basements and feeding neighbors.
Kari White: It didn't take me long to realize, “Oh, we need bylaws. OK, we have to officially define our service area. We need to have a way that we run our meetings. We have to have a way of recording membership and attendance. Um, we need to be able to have a fiscal agent.”
Pete Hirschfeld: KURRVE says the group has identified about 80 households in the Northeast Kingdom — households like Cheri’s — that still need help recovering from all the flooding. Their unmet recovery needs total an estimated half million dollars — and that’s after everything they’ve gotten from FEMA, or the Small Business Administration, or from flood insurance.
But what Kari’s finding is that the lasting impact of the floods extends far beyond those 80 homes.
Kari White: In terms of these disasters highlighting the systemic inequities that exist, I think they're just gonna keep coming until we really fix the root cause of the problems. Which is investing in, in the infrastructure in rural environments and the relationships that it takes. And it's hard, it's really hard over 2,000-plus square miles, right, to feel and act like a unified region.
Pete Hirschfeld: Another recovery worker I talked to in the Kingdom said they had a sort of epiphany doing this work. And what they realized is that poverty was the first disaster. COVID was the second disaster. And then the flood disaster came along and made everything worse.
Kari knows that KURRVE won’t solve those root problems in the short term. But in this new group that’s formed — and the handful of others across the region — she sees a path for reform.
Kari White: There are a million different housing efforts happening here in the Kingdom, but we need some sort of inventory and unified vision toward attacking this in an equitable, sustainable way — that conversation is now possible in a way it might not have been before.
Pete Hirschfeld: This brings me back to my conversation with Sophi Veltop — today’s winning question-asker — and the second part of her curiosity.
Sophi Veltrop: What locally driven solutions have been proven effective, both for recovering and rebuilding better?
So much, so much attention has been — and rightly so — on, on mitigating climate change and reducing emissions. And, absolutely, we need to put so much effort behind that. And I think climate resilience is just even more so at the forefront of my mind now.
Pete Hirschfeld: “Climate resilience.” “Building back better.” These are phrases that come up a lot in discussions about flood recovery efforts. On a fundamental level, they have to do with shifting from a reactive model of support to a proactive one.
How can we invest in Vermont — our physical infrastructure as well as our community support systems — so we’re stronger the next time this happens? Because, as we’ve seen this week, it will happen again. The Northeast sees about 60% more “extreme precipitation events” than it did in 1958. That’s according to the Fifth National Climate Assessment. It’s the largest increase of any region in the United States.
A new phase of recovery
Pete Hirschfeld: On a local level, the work to strengthen community systems is unfolding in flood-damaged churches, empty school buildings and a former police station on Main Street in downtown Barre.
Shawna Trader: Here’s somebody. Hi.
Pete Hirschfeld: Hello.
Pam Wilson Hi!
Pete Hirschfeld: I’m Pete Hirschfeld.
Pam Wilson: Oh Pete, nice to meet you.
Pete Hirschfeld: Good to meet you.
Pam Wilson: I’m Pam Wilson.
Pete Hirschfeld: Cool.
Pam Wilson: Yeah. Welcome to the Barre UP Flood Hub. (laughing)
Pete Hirschfeld: Barre UP is another long-term recovery group. They work mostly with flood survivors in the Granite City — which, by Gov. Phil Scott’s estimate, was the hardest-hit community in all of Vermont over the summer. About 10% of the city’s housing stock was destroyed or damaged by the flooding. And even before, the percentage of people living in poverty there was more than double the rest of the county.
Barre UP, like other recovery groups we’ve met, is involved in mold remediation and furnace installs and securing temporary housing options. But as the time horizon from the summer’s disaster gets longer, Barre UP board member Pam Wilson says their strategies have evolved to become more proactive.
Pam Wilson: It’s a different kind of labor than, um, “Hey, call your strong friends and have them bring shovels.” So, the phase that we’re in now is looking at, how do we actually anticipate, support and mobilize the work that’s needed for residents who wouldn’t be able to do this on their own?
Pete Hirschfeld: It’s not just about getting enough money, or enough contractors, to do repair work. It’s about connecting those resources to the people who need them most. That’s the type of work that these local organizations are best positioned to do.
Shawna Trader, the volunteer executive director at Barre UP, says the group is also looking to turn this strategy into a mobilizing force.
Shawna Trader: So it’s time to really get creative and caring and reimagine how we take care of people. And it’s not just, that’s not a critique on Barre City or the state of Vermont or the nation, but a critique on everything.
Pete Hirschfeld: And she says in order to compel local and state and federal institutions to more aggressively rectify those inadequacies, people are going to need to speak up.
Shawna Trader: You know, we need foundational stuff. And that’s a home. We need a space. We need a space to have dignity before we can launch into the greatness of what’s possible. And we’re not going to get that if we don’t get the policy and investment changes, you know, top to bottom.
Pete Hirschfeld: There is some significant help on the way to support some of this recovery work. A FEMA-funded grant program will pay for about a dozen case managers who will be embedded with recovery groups like Barre UP. They’ll work directly with local organizations to help catalog the needs of the communities they serve, and a philanthropic fund called the Vermont Disaster Recovery Fund will disburse grants of up to $25,000 to subsidize the work.
As for the work it will take to strengthen Vermont’s infrastructure, we already have a useful reference point. In reporting over the summer, Vermont Public examined flood mitigation efforts some towns made after Tropical Storm Irene — things like fortifying river banks, expanding culverts and buying out homes in low-lying neighborhoods. In general, those improvements worked. But, they weren’t enough. Today, officials are also considering redesigning affected towns andbuilding out floodplains.
If this year can teach us anything, it’s that we don’t have the luxury of choice when flooding is so frequent. People still need immediate aid — and Vermont needs more proactive planning, so we don’t find ourselves cleaning up the same messes over and over again. Like in Johnson. The post office I saw on my tour of the town last month finally reopened in its normal space a few weeks later. And then, just days after that, the latest round of flooding hit.It took on more water. And then closed again. At the time of publish, the post office has partially reopened.
Pam Wilson from Barre UP says this relentless cycle requires a new approach.
Pam Wilson: We know that extreme weather events like this are happening frequently. We know that they’re happening frequently enough that whatever previous systems were in place are not proving adequate for making survivors or flood-impacted residents whole. And what do you do about that? That is an open question for each community. It’s an open question for the state. It’s an open questions for the country. It’s an open question for a global human world to say, “Whose job is this?”
Pete Hirschfeld: At the end of my reporting, I followed up with our question-asker, Sophi. I needed to confess something to her.
Pete Hirschfeld: One of the things that’s been difficult for me about the story is that, like, you're asking a question that, like, encouraged us to find, like, hope and light and solutions and promise. Um, and there's some of that, for sure. But, like, my takeaway from all the reporting so far is just how brutally difficult things still are for people.
Sophi Veltrop: Yeah. Yeah, I think at the time that I asked the question, it was two months since the flood, approximately. And so I think a lot — I think I hadn't yet fathomed that we’d be where we are. I mean, I think it's a surprise to me now. And I think I asked that question from a place of like, “Will we still be talking about it enough in a couple of months?”
Being here now, just, like, thinking about that long-term recovery is, like, a completely different ballgame, and certainly a different scale than I imagined it would be. I just thought we’d have it figured out by winter.
Pete Hirschfeld reported this episode. It was produced and edited by the Brave Little State team: Sabine Poux, Burgess Brown and Josh Crane. Angela Evancie is our executive producer. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Lexi Krupp, Tom Drake, Sarah Henshaw, Rev. Dr. Wendy Jaine Summers and Meghan Weyland.
As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:
- Ask a question about Vermont
- Vote on the question you want us to tackle next
- Sign up for the BLS newsletter
- Say hi on Instagram andReddit @bravestatevt
- Drop us an email: email@example.com
- Call our BLS hotline: 802-552-4880
- Make a gift to support people-powered journalism
- Leave us a rating/review in your favorite podcast app
- Tell your friends about the show!
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public and a proud member of the NPR Network.