Vermont starts long road to recovery from historic floods, helped by army of volunteers
Jul 14, 2023, 9:01 PM | Updated: Jul 15, 2023, 9:06 am
The Marshfield Village Store, which sits at the junction of two country highways in a tiny Vermont town, has become a little bit of everything in recent days as residents struggle to recover from historic floods that battered the state.
First the shop in Marshfield, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) east of the state’s biggest city, Burlington, served as a shelter for about three dozen people. By Friday it was a distribution center for much-needed fresh water and a go-to for supplies.
“We’re about to start putting it out more formally, if there are other folks who haven’t been able to get the support that they need yet, so that we can get equipment and volunteers to them, emergency medication, work on their properties, that’s where we’re at right now,” said Michelle Eddleman McCormick, the store’s general manager.
Storms dumped up to two months’ worth of rain in a couple of days in parts of the region earlier this week, surpassing the amount that fell when Tropical Storm Irene blew through in 2011 and caused major flooding. Officials called this week’s flooding the state’s worst natural disaster since floods in 1927, and some suggested storms like this showed the impacts of climate change.
More rain is expected in the coming days, and Vermont authorities said Saturday that brings the possibility of landslides.
The flooding has been blamed for one death: Stephen Davoll, 63, drowned in his home Wednesday in Barre, a central Vermont city of about 8,500 people, according to Vermont Emergency Management spokesman Mark Bosma. He urged people to continue taking extra care as they return to their homes and repair damage.
“The loss of a Vermonter is always painful, but it is particularly so this week,” U.S. Sen. Peter Welch said in statement.
It was the second flood-related death stemming from a storm system and epic flooding in the Northeast this week. The first was in upstate New York, where a woman was swept away by floodwaters in Fort Montgomery, a small Hudson River community about 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of New York City.
President Joe Biden on Friday approved Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s request for a major disaster declaration to provide federal support. Scott also said late Friday he has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue a disaster designation for the state due to damage to crops.
Farms were hit hard, just after many growers endured a hard freeze in May. It’s expected to “destroy a large share of our produce and livestock feed,” Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said at a news conference. It was too soon to determine damage costs, he said.
“In our mountainous state, much of our most fertile farmland lies in river valleys, and countless fields of corn, hay, vegetables, fruit, and pasture were swamped and buried,” Scott said.
Assessors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were scheduled to begin inspecting hard hit areas of Vermont on Saturday. That will help determine who will qualify for government assistance. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is also scheduled to arrive in the state next week to survey flood damage.
The state and others in the Northeast, including New Hampshire and Maine, are bracing for more wet weather expected to hit Sunday and into next week. The New Hampshire Department of Safety and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services said they are closely monitoring water levels across the state.
“We don’t know the extent of some of these storms,” Scott said.
Many communities have been in touch with Vermont emergency management officials, but state officials said Friday they hadn’t yet heard from about two to three dozen of them. National Guard troops were sent to establish contact. The state also announced centers will open to help flood survivors recover this weekend in Barre and Ludlow, a southern Vermont ski village.
Most emergency shelters have emptied, with fewer than 70 people remaining. The focus has shifted to providing food and water and repairing infrastructure, including dozens of closed roads. State officials estimated 23 water treatment plants were either flooded or discharged untreated sewage into waterways.
Ludlow residents have mostly returned home and were able to get electricity and water, Municipal Manager Brendan McNamara said. All roads into town previously cut off by flooding are now accessible.
But plenty of challenges remained. The post office and wastewater treatment plant were heavily damaged. The main grocery store and several restaurants were closed due to damages. In their place, scores of pop-up pantries emerged to provide fresh meals. The community center has served as a clearinghouse for water, food and medicines donated by volunteers streaming into town.
“You walk up and down the street, and any place that wasn’t hit has a sign out front — free food. Please come and get,” McNamara said. “That tells me we have one heck of a community.”
As of Friday about 5,200 people statewide had registered to help relief efforts through the state emergency management agency and an online volunteer recruitment effort, according to Philip Kolling, director of SerVermont.
“What we are doing does not even begin to capture all of the volunteers being organized through local organizations, towns and informal networks, and we encourage those local efforts as they often can address critical needs more quickly,” Kolling said.
Some volunteers offered to drive for the charity Meals on Wheels or take people to medical appointments, others to assist with general cleanup.
In Ludlow, Calcutta’s restaurant was preparing meals for first responders, volunteers and anyone else who might need one. The large banquet room was set up with cots, water and toiletries.
“There’s plenty of work that needs to be done to get us back to normal,” said Michael Reyes, who works for a hospitality group that owns the restaurant.
With more rain coming, it’s critical that residents adhere to safety restrictions as they dig out of the storm, said Miro Weinberger, mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city.
“We continue to operate under a state of emergency, and more heavy rain is expected Sunday. Again, I urge you to heed all road closures and all directions from state and local officials, including to stay away from the river banks, brooks, and streams where flash floods can happen quickly,” Weinberger said.
McCormack reported from Concord, New Hampshire, and Whittle reported from Portland, Maine. Associated Press reporters Lisa Rathke in Marshfield and Michael Casey in Boston contributed.