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'Strengthen what we have': Vermont planners share how flood rebuilding conversations are going

Two people work together to move a muddy fridge outside of a building
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Neighbors pull a fridge out of a basement apartment below Glitz Hair Designs in Cambridge on Wednesday, July 12. After the flooding, owners of six homes in Cambridge have expressed interest in a buyout, according to a regional planning official.

We're two months out from July's historic flooding. Some communities are back to normal. Others still have people living in tents or no functional grocery store.

Three planning directors from across the state joined Vermont Edition host Mikalea Lefrak to share what’s happening in local rebuilding conversations.

Lamoille County

“There are still a lot of things that are not back to normal,” said Tasha Wallace, executive director of the Lamoille County Planning Commission.

Some Wolcott residents are still using town offices to bathe or wash dishes while they wait for fixes in their homes, Wallace said.

 A supermarket produce stall sits crushed in a dusty parking lot. A sign on the building behind it reads Sterling Market.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
The Sterling Market in Johnson is closed indefinitely due to flood damage.

In Johnson, the Sterling Market grocery store is still closed due to flood damage. The wastewater plant is functional thanks to a temporary, expensive, labor-intensive solution. With the town offices, library and fire station all damaged, Wallace said, public meetings are happening at Vermont State University’s Johnson campus. And there are at least 15 homes in Johnson where people are seeking FEMA buyouts.

Cambridge has six possible home buyouts, all in the core of Cambridge village, Wallace said.

There are lots of ideas about rebuilding these three hard-hit communities, Wallace said, but they’re finding that state and federal policies are directed at keeping things in place rather than moving locations.


Montpelier has decided to stay put, said city Planning Director Mike Miller.

Shortly after the flood, some people advocated for moving the historic downtown core to higher ground away from the Winooski River.

“The decision was we want to keep Montpelier where it is,” Miller said. “We've got our historic core. And we really want to go and strengthen what we have.”

Conversations include “hardening” downtown commercial buildings with flood gates, considering how to manage Wrightsville Dam, and asking upriver communities to manage floodplains to absorb more water.

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 is also asking the Legislature to $2 million to elevate 18 housing units, Miller said. Using FEMA funding for elevating homes can be a difficult process that takes years.

“Our argument has been it would be far cheaper to save 18 units than it is to rebuild 18 units,” Miller said.

A handful of businesses have opened in the downtown area, but many still have work to do and are expected to reopen in the coming weeks and months. Montpelier public buildings that sustained basement water damage might take until next year to renovate, Miller said.

More from Vermont Public: Montpelier's Bear Pond Books reopens two months after flooding

Hartford, Woodstock, Randolph, Norwich area (Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission)

Plymouth probably sustained the most flooding damage of any town in the area served by the Two Rivers-Ottaquechee Regional Commission, said Director of Planning Kevin Geiger. There are ongoing issues in Hancock, Vershire and Stockbridge. Overall, the region’s core business areas were not as hard-hit.

The region has a lot of experience with home buyouts after Tropical Storm Irene, Geiger said. About 70 structures were demolished and usually the sites were seeded over. He’s not sure where those residents went, but thinks a lot of them moved elsewhere due to Vermont’s housing shortage.

It’s not just flooding in the mix this time — landslides also caused damage this summer. In some cases, the homes are OK but the roads or bridges that lead to them are not, Geiger said. It may be cheaper to buy out the houses rather than moving the road or hardening the slope, he said.

Broadcast at noon Monday, Sept. 11, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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