Floods test Vermont’s quaint mountain towns in age of climate change

LUDLOW, Vt. — When Jake Baraw descended the steps into his bar on the main street of this small town on Tuesday, he found mud and darkness.

The Black River, swollen by Vermont’s worst flooding in more than a decade, had filled the space nearly to the ceiling before receding. The waters lifted a sofa onto the bar counter. In the kitchen, the walk-in refrigerator lay tossed like a cardboard box.

“Everything but the lights is toast,” said Baraw, 26. He pointed to a white line on a column, marking the height of the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, a deadly event seared into the state’s memory. The dampness from Monday’s deluge was just an inch lower.

More heavy rain forecast for flood-ravaged Vermont. It could be a problem.

“People described Irene as a 50-year storm,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “To see something like this only 10 years later is a little shocking.”

In this small town tucked into the spine of mountains that divides Vermont, more than six inches of rain fell during the storm, causing devastating flooding that inundated streets, damaged roads and swept away parts of hillsides.

For residents, Monday’s flooding caused a deep sense of uncertainty and worry. It was not just the wreckage, but the repetition: How could they be facing catastrophic damage again, so soon? What does it mean to stay safe in a time when the weather can lurch to extremes?

Video recorded on July 11, shows much of Montpelier, Vt., under flood waters after a severe storm dumped 9 inches of rain over 36 hours. (Video: The Washington PostVermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets via Storyful)

Ludlow and other towns dotting Vermont’s mountain valleys are a major draw for the state’s tourism industry and home to its famed ski resorts. But the topography is also a vulnerability in a changing climate as rainfall is funneled down mountains and into small valleys. Those dangers became clear after Tropical Storm Irene. While Vermont made important changes to build resilience after 2011, many acknowledge much more work remains.

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“An extreme weather event — flooding — is now not an aberration, but a certainty,” said Sue Minter, a former state official who oversaw Vermont’s rebuilding after Irene. “It really is incumbent upon all of us to support one another in recovery, but with a very clear eye that this will continue.”

Minter said the hard-won lessons from the last crisis are helping Vermont now: The state better knows how to coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and residents are mobilizing to help their neighbors, thanks to their collective memory of the prior storm. After Irene, the state also tightened its building codes, bought back homes from people living in flood zones and shaped the flow of rivers to decrease flooding.

Nonetheless, many were caught off guard by the ferocity and speed of this week’s storms. And by some measures it was just as strong, or stronger. The Winooski River, which flows through Montpelier, crested above 21 feet, higher than during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and nearly four feet above major flood stage, a National Weather Service meteorologist said. In towns like Ludlow, residents described rapid surges as the flooding persisted.

“It was so quick and so violent,” said Geri Green, who got trapped in her home. “It’s been 12 years and here we are again — and it’s worse.”

In the town of 2,000 that sits in the shadow of a ski resort, the water in the streets had given way to mud, which turned to clouds of dust in the Tuesday sun. Emergency vehicles and construction equipment rattled along the main road, where nearly all businesses were closed.

Brendan McNamara, the Ludlow municipal manager, slumped into a chair at the red-brick town hall. He hadn’t been home in more than 36 hours. He was wearing dark-blue cargo pants and socks borrowed from a paramedic after his own were soaked.

He ticked off the damage. The main street was decimated by flooding. The wastewater treatment plant was wrecked and no longer operational. The supermarket was shut — and could remain that way for months — after it flooded with several feet of water. Roads were washed out.

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Ludlow is dependent on tourism, and its summer season was just vaporized, he said. Now the town may not be in good enough shape to welcome back visitors until winter, he said. Last week, the town completed a brand-new, $300,000 skate park.

“It’s gone,” said McNamara, 39. “Completely gone.”

At times, McNamara was on the brink of tears. He talked about the man he met on the street, a stranger, who lives near the lakes above the town and saw his home swept away. Then there were the 24 hours when any serious medical emergency had to be handled by the town’s own paramedics — unless by chance a helicopter could land.

In the aftermath of both Irene and this week’s flooding, there need to be fresh conversations about what preparedness and resilience look like, McNamara said, and much of that depends on state and federal help.

A critical dam in the area held during the flooding, McNamara said, preventing the damage from being even more catastrophic. It’s on a list of aging dams to be repaired, but that costs money. McNamara said that there is a $50 million project in the works to repair four dams in the area and that the town is being asked to contribute one-fifth of the total cost.

“Where do we come up with $10 million without devastating our tax base?” he asked. But if the dams really are vulnerable, then “we’re playing with borrowed time right now.”

For Vermont, the full extent of this week’s damage is still unknown. More than 100 people have been rescued, and dozens of roads remain closed. Despite the storm’s severity, there are no reports of deaths so far.

In 2011, at least six people were killed during Irene, Vermont’s worst natural disaster since the Great Flood of 1927, state officials said, wrecking 500 miles of roads, destroying 1,000 homes and leaving tens of thousands without power.

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Republican Gov. Phil Scott called the latest storm “Irene 4.0” at a news conference Tuesday. As of Tuesday afternoon, 71 state roads were closed because of flooding and damage, and two bridges had been destroyed, officials said. But the damage is probably much more extensive.

“When a storm comes like this one, which is unique and just has torrential rain for days on end, it’s really hard to forecast how would it have been … if we’d have done something different,” said Joe Flynn, the secretary for Vermont’s Agency of Transportation. “Mother Nature always wins.”

In Ludlow, the destruction has some residents reassessing the risks they face in choosing to live in a scenic mountain town.

Above the town, a landslide of mud and rock covered the road outside the ski resort, slamming into nearby stores. A set of railway tracks hung nearly 100 feet in the air, after flooding ripped out the hillside beneath it, sending an avalanche of debris hurtling toward a major road.

Shaw’s, a large supermarket, was shuttered. Through the window, groceries were visible all over the floor, tumbled by the rising waters. After Irene, the same supermarket operated outdoors for several months. On Tuesday, its staff helped set up a tent outside the police station offering provisions: bottled water, diapers, toilet paper, cereal, snacks.

Green and her 16-year old daughter, Allyssa, stopped by to pick up supplies. They were both reeling from the prior 24 hours. On Monday afternoon, fast-moving waters trapped the family at their home. Their garage was destroyed. Green called 911 repeatedly.

“I can honestly say we were terrified,” said Green, 54. “I thought we were going to die.” By the time rescuers arrived, the water had begun to retreat.

Green said she is going to leave the area when her daughter graduates from high school. The decision isn’t just about the two floods she experienced, but they are part of her motivation.

“I don’t think we could go through this again,” she said.

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