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Should post-flood Montpelier be rebuilt on higher ground?

 A person uses a power washer to clean city sidewalks
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Montpelier city workers power-wash sludge on sidewalks left behind by flood waters. This hour, we ask whether it makes sense for Montpelier to rebuild in the same place, and if so, how?

Since this month’s floods, many Vermonters are wondering if their homes and towns should be rebuilt where they are or moved to higher ground. There are a few different options for Vermonters — from a state buyout program to flood-specific rebuilding options — all of which are being considered in Montpelier, one of the hardest-hit areas during this summer's flooding.

Hazard mitigation

Stephanie Smith is the state hazard mitigation officer. Smith's job is to improve resilience and prevent future risks. One way to do so is through the Vermont Emergency Management hazard mitigation program. The mitigation program is a voluntary buyout program offered to people affected by flooding, or that could be affected in the future.

It's not a new program; the mitigation program was utilized following Irene, and in some areas, the use of the mitigation program actually helped minimize the damage during this year's flooding. This summer, Smith isn't sure what the final demand will be, but they've already received 50 applications from across the state.

The mitigation program is funded through a combination of FEMA programs and state funding programs, which Smith says can help provide more creative options to Vermonters dealing with flooding and future risks.

"Part of the the goal, especially with our new state program, the flood resilient communities fund, where we have a lot more flexibility, is to try and figure out what creative ways do we have to to make sure that we're making people whole, and that they can stick around," Smith says.

Flood waters completely cover a downtown intersection
Mike Dougherty
Vermont Public
A person uses a kayak to navigate downtown Montpelier Tuesday morning. City officials used an emergency health order to close the downtown until at least noon.

The program isn't just for damaged property: if Vermonters are at risk for future hazards, they are eligible. And, the program can provide the "day before" value for a home — meaning, what a home was valued for the day before the storm happened — which may be more beneficial for some Vermonters.

Rebuilding for resiliency

The hazard mitigation program is voluntary for people who decide rebuilding isn't the right choice. But not wanting to leave is a valid choice, too. And there are some systems in place for people wanting to stay where they are.

Brian Leet is a senior project manager at Freeman French Freeman Architectsin Burlington, and a disaster assistance coordinator with American Institute of Architects Vermont. Paul Boisvert is a senior engineer and principal withEngineering Ventures in Burlington.

Leet and Boisvert both work on resilient rebuilding. Both Leet and Boisvert understand that the choice to rebuild is case-by-case, made by each property owner, and that some spaces may not fare best with a rebuild.

"In the aftermath, when your first instinct is like, 'Let's rebuild. Let's put back what we loved before, why we were here.' Sometimes you need to have flexibility to say maybe that's not the best strategy," Leet says.

Flexibility, and an objective eye, to consider all the options. But, if rebuilding is the decision that's made, there are ways to do so.

"There are ways to make buildings more resilient," Boisvert says.

There are two ways to rebuild after a flood, when more flooding is expected down the line: wet flood proofing, and dry flood proofing.

Dry flood proofing is, understandably, what most people want: rebuild to keep water out. But this is a really tricky option, and one that isn't as resilient with large amounts of water.

Water is strong. It's strong enough to lift cars. And if a house is fortified to keep water out, then the water may just pick it up instead.

Wet flood proofing is essentially rebuilding with the expectation that things will get wet. And Leet says it's better than trying to keep mother nature at bay.

"The idea is that the space will get wet, but it will be designed to be recoverable quickly. So you want to keep any type of systems that would be damaged by the flooding — electrical, mechanical — out of the space. ... And then the materials for the architecture should be things that don't degrade, you know, not organic things that won't support mold. So if you have concrete and tile, and those sorts of materials that you can just go back down, wipe down, mop down, clean up. And then you have a space that you can continue to use in some function," Leet says.

A person uses a yellow bucket to clean flood muck and water
Mike Dougherty
Vermont Public
Lindsay Graff cleans up a lot on Langdon Street in Montpelier on Wednesday morning.

So then the question becomes, why would people want to stay in flood areas, anyways?

History. And community. People want to stay at home. And Leet and Boisvert understand — that's why they push for rebuilding with resilience in mind. But the challenge is encouraging people to understand that sometimes that includes being open to change.

"We have a place that is a certain way, and we expect it to continue to be that way. ... So the challenge for many communities is how do we encourage change and development and density coming back out of this floodplains, back up into what are often very historic community centers, accepting that that means some change in spaces that we're very used to thinking of as very historic? And then how do we allow the people who sell to to get away from the flood risk the opportunity to live right still in the same community," Leet says.

"Some of these buildings ... it's an old historic building. I don't think we want to give those things up in Vermont. But we do need to find ways to make those more recoverable," Boisvert says.

Flooding in Montpelier

Which brings it all back to Montpelier — a hard-hit, well-loved community. So, should Montpelier rebuild where it is? There's no one right answer. But Smith, Leet and Boisvert all agree it's a case-by-case decision — a difficult one — and one that might cause some change.

A dam is seen from the air, with a reservoir stretching into the background
Civil Air Patrol
The Wrightsville Dam sits north of Montpelier and creates a reservoir from the north branch of the Winooski River. Photographed from the air on July 15.

"Montpelier exists the way it does today because of the Wrightsville dam. And to create that dam, other property owners had to be moved out of the way to create a reservoir," Leet says.

Rebuilding is a community effort that happens at the individual level as well as the local, and state, level. And it may bring about change.

Smith says it's changing how people thinking about housing developments in Montpelier, and Boisvert tells one caller it isn't unreasonable to look at the Wrightsville dam and question if it should be looked at, drained or otherwise adjusted for future floods.

But right now, the goal is to recover to a stable level, Leet says.

"Take a deep breath, and then do reach out. There are a lot of community resources, there are architects and engineers. ... And before you dive in and spend a lot of money or just assume I have to run away from this problem, get a couple other perspectives and opinions."

Broadcast at noon Monday, July 31, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or check us out on Instagram.

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.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.