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Johnson leaders reflect on how the town rebuilt together, and what comes next

Beth Foy stands in front of Jenna's Coffee House's yellow exterior in Johnson
Samantha Watson
Vermont Public
Beth Foy is Johnson's former select board chair. She helped the town respond to last summer's flooding. She announced recently that she would not be running for chair again for a number of reasons — including flood-related health issues that she shared in hopes of educating others.

During last summer's flooding, Johnson — which sits at the intersection of both the Lamoille River and the Gihon River — saw some of the worst destruction in the state.

Farms, houses, churches, the grocery store, even the wastewater plant were lost when the Lamoille River peaked at about 21 feet on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

One year later, Johnson is a town in transition. The town is still without it's only grocery store, and the library is still operating out of a temporary location. There's discussions of Federal Emergency Management Agency housing buyouts and potential building relocations. The wastewater plant has rebuilt, but remains vulnerable.

More from Vermont Public: Johnson's wastewater facility completely destroyed

Town leaders and community members are still working to move forward — together — and prepare for the future.

Vermont Edition joined town leaders live in Johnson on Wednesday, July 10. The full audio is provided above. The episode was also filmed, and you can watch it on Vermont Public’s main TV channel this Friday at 7 p.m.

Erik Bailey is Johnson's village manager. He remembers the emergency meeting that happened one year ago, and the nonstop work that happened that first week as the river crested nearly 4 feet higher than predicted.

"The Monday coming into the storm, we had our emergency meeting. And I decided, 'Well, I'll see you guys in a couple hours. I'm going home to get clothing and a bed roll and such.' And I didn't go home for three days," Bailey said. "That first week, sleep — yeah, sleep was optional."

Erik Bailey stands in front of Jenna's Coffee House's yellow exterior in Johnson
Samantha Watson
Vermont Public
Erik Bailey is Johnson's village manager.

"Sleeping and eating were luxuries, at that time," Beth Foy, the former select board chair, said. "So that evening of, we were up all night watching water rise. And the predictions were not even close, and when the crest was going to happen was not close. So we were just watching and making decisions really quickly."

Those decisions included setting up a shelter at VTSU Johnson, which Foy said housed at least 30 people at all times, compared to the few she predicted would need it.

Foy said the community impact of the flooding was the worst part.

"I think that the real impact on community members and vulnerable populations was probably the hardest part of last year. It really did hit people who lived in areas that you know, don't have easy lives," Foy said. "There are lots of places that contribute to your sense of belonging. When it comes to town offices, when it comes to the library, when it comes to the churches ... the post office connects all of us to everything we need to do in the world."

But town leaders agree that the community aspect was the best thing to come out of the floods.

"One of the biggest things I noticed was ... the infighting and bickering stopped immediately," Bailey, the village manager, said. "Everybody — people who normally couldn't stand each other were working together side by side. And that was the great side effect of such a disaster. And some of those mended fences are still much better than they were before the flood. So there's always some little light that comes out of bad things."

More from Vermont Public: In Johnson, floods brought devastation but also hope and togetherness

Dan Copp, the chief operator of the Johnson Wastewater Treatment Facility, said people were bringing water and food those first few weeks after the wastewater facility was damaged.

"Wastewater plants are kind of hidden down by the river and people flush their toilets and don't — [they] flush it and forget it," Copp said. "People were stopping down and giving, just dropping off water, simple things like that. You know, lunch would show up. ... I mean, we literally didn't even have time to go to the store for the first week. So just the outpouring of the community support was, was very welcome."

One year later, the community has come together to rebuild, and envision the future of Johnson. But the town isn't "back to normal."

For one, Foy said it's known that many people were displaced out of homes — even out of the county — due to flooding and a lack of other housing options. Foy said there are currently 11 applications for FEMA home buyouts — nine of which have been signed by the select board — and two more potential requests.

"That's quite a few considering, you know, a population of around 3,000 in a town," she said.

While the wastewater treatment is back up and running, Copp, the chief operator, said unfortunately the facility is more vulnerable than it was before the flooding last year.

"The cement block wall is cracked at the facility. So there's penetrations now where water will leak in," Copp said. "We have flood gates that we installed, so it can come up to that level, and it used to seal it tight — I don't feel comfortable that it will now with the damage that was done to the building itself. So that's leaving us a very uneasy feeling. We flooded in December again down there and the rental trailer that we moved all of our computer equipment to got 3 and a half feet of water in December. So we lost more stuff in December."

Dan Copp stands in front of Jenna's Coffee House's yellow exterior
Samantha Watson
Vermont Public
Dan Copp is the chief operator of the Johnson Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Many farmers in the county are still grappling with crop, livestock and equipment loss last season, making this season much harder.

Joie Lehouillier is the co-owner of Foote Brook Farm, a certified organic produce farm in Johnson. Last summer, she told Vermont Edition that she lost around 75% of her crops.

More from Vermont Edition: Vermont farmers reckon with total crop loss following floods

She said after collecting data, that amounted to nearly half a million dollars in damages.

"We are full speed and ready to go for this season," Lehouillier said. "Last year we got a tremendous amount of support. … It really helped us get through last year, and looking back it still amazes me that we were able to."

Being able to recover from those damages, with the help of the community, was important. Lehouillier said it's even more important for this season to go well.

"We really need this season to go well, and if it does we’ll be in even better shape," she said. "This next month is, like, everything for the future of this farm."

Joie Lehouillier stands in front of Jenna's Coffee House's yellow exterior in Johnson
Samantha Watson
Vermont Public
Joie Lehouillier is the co-owner of Foote Brook Farm in Johnson. She said after collecting data and doing calculations, she had nearly half a million dollars in damages from floods at the farm. If things go well on the farm this season, Lehouillier said it could mean "everything for the future of this farm."

And for the former select board chair, Foy is still working to move forward from the flood's impacts in her personal life. A few months ago, Foy announced that she would not be running for her chair. She said it's due to many reasons, including the work load and an infection that wasn't getting better.

"I got sick this winter. And I got sick to the point where I really wasn't functioning very well. And I decided that if I wasn't getting better by the time the petitions were due, which was in January, that I wouldn't run. So I wasn't getting better and got progressively worse. ... It turned out I had a lung infection called blastomycosis. It's a fungal infection. It can be very serious," Foy said. "It is very likely that the floodwaters stirred up the spores in the air and that was likely the source of me being infected."

Johnson learned a lot — about rebuilding, and doing it together.

And now, they're using that what they learned again, as flash flood and tornado warnings have been issued for the area for Wednesday and Thursday.

Erik Bailey said that there's a lot of apprehension and worry that's carried over from last summer — understandably so.

"A lot of people are very concerned. And we're doing our best to deal with that, where I'm watching the forecast and the weather, the river gauges very closely," Bailey said. "We're preparing for the worst — we're not expecting it at all. But we are, you know, moving everything we need to move in low areas. I've got, I'm deploying electric utility rigs to this side of the river, so not stranded. You know, Dan and his crew are preparing the wastewater facility for high water. So we're going through the exercise just as if it was going to be last year, even though we really don't expect that at all."

"I don't think I slept last night, thinking about what we're going to do," Copp said. "As Eric said, I mean, we're preparing for the worst, we have to at this point, and we put a lot of money to get the plant back up and running. And there's a lot of infrastructure there. If it's not bolted down, we're moving into higher ground. We've been working on it all day. Probably we'll be working on it half the night to get everything out.

For Lehouillier, there's definitely nervousness — more than last summer.

"[We] were trying to prepare last year for what we thought was going to happen. It ended up being so much worse than we had anticipated. This year, I'm not going to let that happen."

Broadcast live on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m. You can watch the video recording on Vermont Public’s main TV channel this Friday 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.
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.
Samantha Watson is Vermont Public's news intern.