Flooded New England communities shift to recovery, shoveling out tons of mud and debris

12 July 2023

By LISA RATHKE (Associated Press)

ANDOVER, Vt. (AP) — Floodwaters receded in Vermont cities and towns pummeled by a storm that delivered two months of rain in two days, enabling people to focus on recovering from a disaster that trapped residents in homes, closed roadways and choked streets and businesses with mud and debris.

The water drained off in the capital city of Montpelier, where streets were flooded Tuesday by the swollen Winooski River, and lingering concerns about a dam just upstream eased as water levels there appeared to stabilize.

“It looks like it won’t breach. That is good. That is one less thing we have to have on our front burner,” Montpelier Town Manager Bill Fraser said.

Fraser said the city of 8,000 has shifted into recovery mode, with public works employees removing mud and debris downtown and building inspections to come as businesses begin cleaning up their properties. Brown water from the Winooski reached the tops of parking meters downtown, inundating basements and ruining the contents of lower floors. Similar scenes played out in neighboring Barre and in Bridgewater, where the Ottauquechee River spilled its banks.

Gov. Phil Scott planned to tour areas impacted by the flooding with Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on Wednesday, a day after President Joe Biden declared an emergency for Vermont and authorized federal disaster relief assistance.

It was too early to estimate the total cost of the flooding damage, but it’s likely to be substantial. According to to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, even before these floods, this year has seen 12 confirmed weather/climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion in the United States.

This slow-moving storm dumped between 7 and 9 inches (18 centimeters and 23 centimeters) of rain on parts of New England, New York and Connecticut. New York’s Hudson River Valley was hit hard, and towns in southwest New Hampshire and western Massachusetts also had heavy flooding and road washouts.

Much of that water was flowing through Connecticut, carrying debris including entire trees on its way south to Long Island Sound. Major waterways including Connecticut River overflowed their banks, and were expected to crest Wednesday at up to 6 feet (2 meters) above flood stage, closing roads and riverside parks in multiple cities.

By mid-day Wednesday, all the rivers in Vermont crested and water levels were receding, although at least one river was 20 feet above normal, said Peter Banacos, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. More rain was forecast Thursday and Friday in Vermont, but Banacos said it would not likely cause further flooding because the thunderstorms, gusty winds and hail won’t linger.

“There could be some locally heavy rain so it depends where that falls,” Banacos said. “The storms will be moving quickly for the most part so we are hoping to avoid any additional flooding for that region.”

There have been no reports of injuries or deaths related to the flooding in Vermont, where swift-water rescue teams aided by National Guard helicopter crews performed more than 175 rescues, Vermont Emergency Management said Tuesday. One woman died in Fort Montgomery, New York, as she tried to escape her flooded home with her dog.

About 12 Vermont communities, including the state capital, were under a boil water alert due to the floods. The American Red Cross of Northern New England succeeded in getting food and water to its shelters in Barre, Rutland, and White River Junction. Attendance was down at the Barre Municipal Auditorium shelter, 58 as of Wednesday morning, compared to more than 200 on Tuesday.

Many people were passing through to recharge their phones and get something to eat, said John Montes, regional disaster officer. Red Cross volunteers from across the Northeast were arriving to help with everything from disaster assessment to handing out clean-up kits to homeowners, he said.

“There’s more rain coming tomorrow, so it’s best for us to be leaning forward and be ready,” Montes said. “We can handle any additional impacts we get from the weather this week.”

Gov. Scott said floodwaters surpassed levels seen during Tropical Storm Irene. Irene killed six people in Vermont in August 2011, washing homes off their foundations and damaging or destroying more than 200 bridges and 500 miles (805 kilometers) of highway.

Atmospheric scientists say destructive flooding events happen more frequently as storms form in a warmer atmosphere, and the planet’s rising temperatures will only make it worse.

This flooding was catastrophic for Bear Pond Books, a 50-year-old store in Montpelier, said co-owner Claire Benedict. The water was about 3 1/2 feet deep inside the store, ruining many books and fixtures. Staffers and volunteers piled waterlogged books outside the back and front doors on Wednesday.

“The floor was completely covered with soaked books this morning,” she said as they tried to clear the mud. “It’s a big old mess.”

In Ludlow, a central Vermont town of 1,500, residents focused Wednesday on reopening roadways, checking on isolated homeowners and cleaning out mud and debris from water-logged businesses.

“We sustained catastrophic damage. We just really took the brunt of the storm,” Ludlow Municipal Manager Brendan McNamara said.

The town’s water treatment plant was out of commission, the main supermarket and roadway through town remained closed, and McNamara couldn’t begin to estimate how many houses had been damaged. Scores of businesses were damaged, and the town’s Little League field and a new skate park were destroyed.

“Thankfully we got through it with no loss of life,” McNamara said. “Ludlow will be fine. People are coming together and taking care of each other.”

Colleen Dooley, a retired teacher, returned to her condominium complex in Ludlow to find the grounds covered in silt and mud and the pool filled with muddy river water.

“I don’t know when we’ll move back, but it will certainly be awhile,” she said.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Maura Healey got a bird’s eye view of the damage in a helicopter ride to the small town of Williamsburg on Wednesday, where roads were washed out and some people had to be rescued from their homes. Even after two days of receding waters, the Connecticut River retained a muddy brown hue and farmland along the river remains saturated, the Democrat said.


Associated Press contributors include Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire; Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Connecticut; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; and Mark Pratt, Michael Casey and Steve LeBlanc in Boston.

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