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How volunteers and mutual aid groups are helping Vermonters recover from flooding

 People bend down using buckets and a pasta pot to scoop water from an interior room
Brian Stevenson
Vermont Public
Volunteers use buckets and a pasta pot to bail out the basement of Second Congregational Church in Londonderry on Tuesday morning.

Volunteers are assisting with flood cleanup all across the state. Volunteer organizers shared what they've been seeing on the ground, suggestions of safe and effective ways to chip in, and information on how to access resources.

Plus: the president of the Vermont Insurance Agents Association shared tips on applying for flood insurance and federal disaster assistance.

For even more information, follow Vermont Public's live flood coverage here.

Volunteering with disaster relief

Volunteer efforts are beginning to pick up across the state, and volunteer and mutual aid organizers want to continue to support safe and effective volunteering.

Wendy Rice and Kiah Morris started VT Flooding 2023 Response and Recovery Mutual Aid to help sift through all the volunteer opportunities and resources in the state. They want their group to act as an informational hub for volunteer resources, from hyper-local needs to safety guides.

"When you're in crisis, and when you're in a state of trauma, and when you're just trying to survive, navigating public systems and filtering through all that array of information is just an impossible task," Rice said.

It's important to make sure your help is going where it's actually needed, and if you are showing up, you're doing so prepared.

Morris noted that while everyone is in a state of wanting to give their everything to helping their communities, sometimes it's more helpful to give less. While it may be out of good nature, some help may only cause more chaos if the community isn't ready.

For example, some towns need a lot of physical cleanup help, and aren't prepared for many donations. Other places need donations more. However, some communities may need cleaning supplies or personal protective equipment (PPE), where others will benefit more from clothes, food or water. Make sure to take items to the right places, too, to help efforts as oppose to make them messier.

Morris and Rice set up community chats in their VT Flooding group to help with this hyper-local volunteer approach.

If you are showing up to offer physical labor to flood relief efforts, it's important to come prepared.

Peter Walke has been organizing relief efforts in Montpelier for the past week through Montpelier Alive. For people coming to shovel mud and clean out businesses, they're providing safety precautions like PPE and handwashing stations to make it safer for volunteers to participate.

"(We're) just trying to make it as safe as possible, recognizing that there are risks, and the risks of inaction are also strong. ... We are trying to balance those things as best as possible," Walke said.

Walke said to show up to volunteer sites prepared. Bringing the right shoes — like boots instead of flip flops — and a change of clothes can make a big difference. Knowing your own physical limitations, and being mindful of other factors like heat, is important, too.

But physical labor isn't the only way to help. If you aren't able to give through physical labor, especially in a safe way, there may be ways to organize resources or volunteer from home.

These hyper-local volunteer approaches are also important in making sure every part of a community is getting the help they need. Morris said that some of the hardest-hit communities often don't get the help they need because of a lack of reliable, helpful information. Morris said that communities that may be outside of the town center are more susceptible to receiving inadequate support.

"These are things that often come up in conversations with individuals," Morris said. "Folks that can't get access to their medications, they can't get access to the medical supplies that they need. There are individuals who are already homebound and could not get out because of their different individual disabilities. They are still being forgotten, just as they were during COVID. Those things have not changed."

Rice and Morris both spoke to how the COVID response influenced their role in flood recovery. They both also spoke to the idea of burnout, stating that people are still recovering from the physical and mental toll of helping their neighbors during COVID, or the flooding from Irene.

No matter how you are helping, Rice urges volunteers to show up in the right emotional headspace.

"It's devastation and people have lost everything. And standing face to face with the human-lived experience ... is really something that you need to be grounded for," Rice said.

Rice said that, as a volunteer, it's also important to remember that you are showing up from a place of privilege those you are helping don't have.

If you're volunteering, the bottom line is that it's important to keep yourself safe. While water is receding in many areas, the risk of unsafe conditions is still there — from mold or potential illnesses carried on water damaged items to heat and dehydration, or even burnout.

"This is going to be a long journey," Morris said.

"We've been feeding off energy and adrenaline this past week. And at some point that begins to taper off. The need doesn't taper off, but the ability to manage those kind of logistics can," Walker said.

Insurance information

Jessica Fleury, board of directors president for the Vermont Insurance Agents Association, provided some guiding information to Vermonters getting ready to look at assistance in flood damage.

Fleury said one of the most important things to do is document the damages.

"Regardless of coverage, that is the main thing, documenting damage," Fleury said. Doing so in a safe way while preventing further damage will be important when seeking disaster relief.

Property requires separate flooding insurance coverage, so Fleury recommends reaching out to your agent as soon as possible to find out if you're covered. For people with cars that may have been damaged, if you have comprehensive coverage, water damage may be included.

Broadcast at noon Monday, July 17, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources

View or share a printable PDF version of these resources.

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      Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
      Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.