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Looking back, one year after flooding upended Vermont communities

 Flood waters cover a downtown street
Mike Dougherty
/
Vermont Public
Floodwaters filled Main Street in Montpelier on the morning of Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

The flooding in July 2023 destroyed homes and businesses throughout Vermont. It also brought attention to climate change and the need to prepare for future disasters.

In Montpelier, Bob Kinzel, a senior reporter at Vermont Public, watched from Vermont Public’s office in downtown Montpelier as rainwater filled the nearby parking lot and State Street.

“Things just happened quickly. You know, it went from 3 or 4 inches of water to 3 or 4 feet,” Kinzel said.

When Kinzel left the office that night, via a bike path on higher ground, he looked back at the flooded downtown. “It was a staggering and a very sobering sight,” he said.

Meanwhile, Collin O’Neil, manager of the Wrightsville Recreation District, was monitoring water levels at Wrightsville Dam that day. He arrived early at Wrightsville Beach to secure the area. Because of how quickly the floodwaters were rising, O’Neil said it was a “mad dash” to get the park prepared.

“And it was coming up fast. Like normally, a typical flood event at Wrightsville, the water is going to come up by maybe a foot an hour,” O’Neil said. “This was coming up by 2 feet an hour. So that was really surprising, and, after 20-something years managing there, unprecedented. So we were scrambling.”

However, O’Neil said that he “had faith in the dam,” though the rising water came close to breaching the secondary spillway — causing concern and confusion in downtown Montpelier.

Currently, the Wrightsville Beach area is open to visitors, O’Neil said, though it has two more years of recovery, along with the implementation of a resiliency plan.

In nearby Barre, people lost their homes, businesses were damaged and one person died as a result of the floods.

Keith Cushman, Barre City's fire chief, said Barre had already seen flooding over the past several decades, giving them a “heightened sense of awareness.”

“Personally, I had a feeling of disbelief that it was actually happening here in Vermont. The flooding to the magnitude and then coupled with the landslides, that's something I equate to California. Never dreamt would I see it in Vermont, let alone in Barre.”
Keith Cushman, Barre City fire chief

To prepare for the chance of flooding last July, he and Michael Charbonneau, a captain with Barre City's Fire & Emergency Medical Services department, mobilized their teams to prepare and move equipment to higher ground.

There was still a sense of disbelief for Cushman.

“Personally, I had a feeling of disbelief that it was actually happening here in Vermont,” Cushman said. “The flooding to the magnitude and then coupled with the landslides, that's something I equate to California. Never dreamt would I see it in Vermont, let alone in Barre.”

Charbonneau, who spent time in Louisiana helping with recovery after Hurricane Katrina, said the aftermath of the flooding last year in Barre was “unreal.”

“It reminded me a lot [of Katrina], just a smaller scale, a smaller area — but the levels that we had for water, and the distress that people were in, the damage that was done to people's houses and businesses — it was just something I never would have expected to see here. But it definitely kind of took me back to that month I spent down there and just seeing the devastation on such a scale,” Carbonneau said.

In both Barre and Montpelier, communities banded together to respond immediately after the floods. Long-term recovery efforts are ongoing.

Throughout the show, people who experienced the flooding in summer 2023 called in to share their thoughts and experiences. Here are some of those excerpts:

Shawna Trader in Barre: When the floodwaters rose. It was a catastrophe of disconnection. ... It really cut off our neighborhoods from each other, and it cut off our Main Street from the world. And when the waters receded, it really exposed a lot of the insecurities that exist here in this town. This town is particularly affected by poverty and all of the issues that cascade down from poverty: housing obviously, substance abuse, and so forth. And it really became obvious after the flood, how many holes there were in our social safety net, and how important it has been for community members to recognize that, acknowledge that and stand up and fight for a stronger community.

Cyriac in Barre City: One thing we know is like, these are supposed to be once-in-a-century events, and they’re kind of happening frequently. And I'm just curious to know, like, how are we holding the people who cause climate change accountable? I’m really happy that Gov. Phil Scott passed the Superfund Act. But I think, like, that needs to happen everywhere across the United States. … While they’re making billions of dollars, we’re all suffering. Like, I had to spend almost $10,000 to like, put sump pumps in my basement, and like, why should I have to pay for these things? It doesn't seem fair.

Shawn in Vershire: I was just amazed by how much of the geology of the state was exposed after being buried for years. From piles of glacial cobbles that expose lots of really cool, like serpentine, to some of the like, little mountain streams that were turned into deep gullies down to the bedrock. There's this really unique, to see all those things in the destruction, kind of a bittersweet aspect to it.

John in Lyme, New Hampshire: I work in Vermont, at Norwich University in Northfield, and I'm a geologist who studies rivers and floods and flood recovery. … You know, the thing that I find is that floods are really devastating for our communities and for human infrastructure. And we always have to keep that in mind. But what I see time and time again, is that the floods are actually incredibly beneficial for the natural system of the rivers. It builds stability, it builds habitat diversity. There’s saying out there in our field: Messy rivers are healthy rivers, and floods bring that messiness back.

At the end of the broadcast, Vermont Edition played Brilliant Moon, a song performed by Julia Ostrov and written by Kristen Plylar-Moore after the flooding in Montpelier. Listen to it here.

Broadcast live on Monday, July 8, 2024, at noon; 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.
Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Zoe McDonald is a digital producer in Vermont Public’s newsroom. Previously, she served as the multimedia news producer for WBHM, central Alabama’s local public radio station. Before she discovered her love for public media, she created content for brands like Insider, Southern Living and Health. She graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi in 2017. Zoe enjoys reading, drinking tea, trying new recipes and hiking with her dog.