BRATTLEBORO — Heavy rain fell on Vermont on July 9 and 10 in amounts not seen since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Mountain towns such as Weston and Londonderry took the brunt of a slow-moving series of showers and thunderstorms that delivered up to 6 inches of rain in less than 24 hours. Access to both towns was cut off after flash flooding washed out roads and led to the need for several rescues to be made by water-borne emergency responders.
All local and state resources were deployed to respond to the ongoing disaster. So far, there have been no reports of injuries or deaths related to the flooding, but damage to roads and property was considerable.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck response,” Gov. Phil Scott said at a July 10 press conference at the state Emergency Operations Center in Waterbury. “We have not seen rainfall like this since Irene, and in some places, it will surpass even that.”
Calling the flooding “historic and catastrophic,” Scott said on July 11 that even through the rain had stopped and skies were sunny, “this is not over.”
The governor warned that more rain could come later in the week, as dams are at near capacity and rivers and steams are still running well above normal July levels.
Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety Daniel Batsie told reporters at the July 10 news conference that the state's immediate focus would be on saving lives. Property and infrastructure repairs would come later, he said.
On July 9, Scott declared a state of emergency, activating the state's Emergency Operations Center and National Guard. On Monday morning, he anticipated that damages to the state would exceed the threshold to request a federal emergency declaration, which could help secure federal funding to help recovery efforts.
By the end of the day on Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for all 14 counties of Vermont, with federal disaster relief and assistance made available to the state.
Heavy rain in the hills
In 24 hours, Tropical Storm Irene dumped up to 11 inches of rain on Vermont, causing flash flooding that killed seven people and damaged or destroyed scores of homes, more than 200 bridges, and more than 500 miles of highways.
By contrast, the rains of July 9 and 10 brought Irene-like levels of precipitation to western parts of Windham County and southern Rutland County that fell on ground already saturated by three weeks of persistent showers and thunderstorms.
While towns in the Connecticut River Valley generally got about 1 to 2 inches of rain in the 34 hours between Sunday night and Tuesday morning, rain totals rose sharply in the towns west of Brattleboro.
The spine of the Green Mountains got considerably more rain, with Andover, which lies between Londonderry and Chester, recording 8.65 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
Ludlow, just north of Weston and Londonderry, topped out at 5.67 inches. West Wardsboro got 4.53 inches, West Dover got 4.54 inches, Marlboro got 4 inches, Jacksonville got 3.75 inches, and Wilmington got 3.5 inches.
The volume of water that the hill towns in southern Vermont received from the storms could be measured at the river gauges maintained by the NWS.
At North Walpole, along the Connecticut River, the water level jumped from 13 feet early on Monday to 28.22 feet - moderate flood stage - by Tuesday morning, leading to some flooding along Route 5 in Westminster near Allen Brothers Farm Market.
Water levels eventually receded by the end of Tuesday, but the silt-filled water continued to thunder southward to threaten towns along the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts.
The water level on the Williams River in Rockingham rose from 3 feet early on Monday to 15.6 feet - well above flood stage- by Monday night. That was close to the previous crest of 17.9 feet on Aug. 28, 2011.
Water levels receded to 6 feet by Tuesday morning, but not before floodwaters nearly washed away the Worrall Covered Bridge in Bartonsville.
On the West River, just below Townshend Lake, the water level went from 6 feet on Sunday night to 8.26 feet by noon Monday.
Both Ball Mountain Dam in Jamaica and Townshend Dam were performing controlled water releases to cope with rising floodwaters on the West River. Personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feared that they would have to release a large amount of water from those two dams, but by Tuesday morning, the Corps announced that water levels had slowly receded and the measure would be unnecessary.
That decision averted a flooding threat for low-lying areas of the West River Valley from Jamaica to Brattleboro.
The threat of more storms in the coming days means that flash flooding will remain a concern for people living near Vermont's rivers and streams. Vermonters can track river forecasts and levels at bit.ly/722-weather-safety.
Residents are also encouraged to register for a Vermont Alert account at vtalert.gov to receive up-to-the-minute safety warnings.
According to the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the main state highways into the Weston/Londonderry area - Routes 11 and 100 - suffered major washouts and flooding on Monday. Route 30 was also closed between Winhall and Jamaica but was reopened by noontime Monday.
Interstate 89 was closed Monday night between the Montpelier and Middlesex exits due to flooding, but the highway was reopened by Tuesday morning after debris was cleared and the roadway was inspected.
In all, 78 state highways and countless local roads around Vermont were washed out. For a list of current state road closures, visit newengland511.org.
According to Mike Cannon, the state's urban search and rescue program coordinator, 13 swift-water rescue crews from Vermont are responding to emergency calls. They have been assisted by six more crews from North Carolina, Connecticut, and Massachusetts with more personnel from other states en route to Vermont.
The Vermont National Guard added to the response with five helicopters patrolling hard-hit areas, assisted by drones, to search for people trapped in homes or cars.
Cannon said swift-water teams had conducted 117 rescues since July 9 and evacuated nearly 70 people.
In downtown Wilmington, the scene of so much devastation during Irene, the Deerfield River was running near the top of its banks on Monday afternoon and was close to overflowing before the water receded as quickly as it rose late Monday night and Tuesday morning.
“Water has filled all of the floodplains, some basements, a parking lot, and parts of Route 100,” said Town Manager Scott Tucker. “But it doesn't appear it's going to be very costly. People were better prepared because of Irene.”
Town officials update Londonderry residents
At the Londonderry Selectboard's emergency meeting on July 11, town officials said that while the town has made extensive progress repairing and reopening the long list of damaged roads, more work remains.
The town is working with several private contractors to expedite the repairs. Selectboard member Taylor Prouty listed the contractors and said, “We're really lucky to have these folks around who want to help. They're all of our friends and neighbors, and we'll never forget them.”
Members of the audience also asked about how the town road crew was holding up. Board members said they were tired but doing OK.
So far, the local contractors have access to enough road material to make repairs, the board said.
Despite the swift progress in reopening damaged roads, Prouty offered a word of caution to drivers.
“None of our roads are in good shape. Treat the open roads as - at best - like they're one lane and passable,” Prouty told the small audience during the Zoom meeting.
According to board members, the municipality has conducted welfare checks throughout Londonderry.
Board members discussed members of the local business community who are still cleaning up after the storm. Volunteers are needed, they said, adding that any community members who would like to contact local businesses and offer help will be welcomed.
Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, and Adam Grinold, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., said that the state is still deciding how to collect data about the damage that individual residents and business owners have incurred from the flood.
Campany recommended that if people have a non-emergency need or are looking to report property damage, they should call 211.
Grinold echoed Campany's recommendation, adding the recommedation that individuals and business owners should keep very good records. He recommended that property owners take a number of before and after photos and to track expenses as well as the number of hours that volunteers work on their behalf.
The Selectboard noted that the town's responsibility for road repair ends at the edge of the road. Damage to driveways and any culverts that are part of those driveways is the responsibility of the landowners.
Members of the audience also recommended that people have their well water tested.
The board approved an emergency road access agreement with landowners Chad and Jessica Landmon to help residents stranded on Cobble Ridge Road and Stone Hollow reach Route 100.
Board member Melissa Brown said she felt proud to live in Londonderry. She thanked the emergency responders, community members, and volunteers helping the town recover from the storm.
Prouty agreed, saying that the number of people helping to clean up the downtown Tuesday demonstrated “a lot of life in the wake of the disaster.”
Assessing damage in the Deerfield Valley
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, spent most of Monday and Tuesday driving through her district, assessing damages and talking with people affected by the flooding.
Most of the damage she witnessed in Stratton, Dover, Jamaica, and Wardsboro was to roads. In Wardsboro, floodwaters washed away a home, she said, although she had yet to speak to the homeowner.
Sibilia said she planned to visit a woman in Jamaica who said her car sat buried under a pile of boulders.
She said that time will tell whether this storm caused more damage than Irene, but one issue she felt better about was connectivity.
Post-Irene, Sibilia pushed a metaphorical alarm on the poor state of Vermont's rural communications and internet infrastructure. Her concerns, shared by fellow lawmakers, eventually led to the creation of Communications Union Districts, a framework that has allowed the development of local, rural internet networks such as DVFiber.
Repairing roads is the big work right now, she said.
Sibilia and officials from several towns are working to gain access to a gravel bank in Stratton. They hope that using gravel from the local area will save municipal highway crews travel time rather than trucking to several, and more distant, gravel companies for materials.
In Jamaica, town officials were preparing for a late-night meeting on Tuesday to take a holistic look at flood damage.
Quite a few roads had been damaged, but, in general, town officials said things could have been worse: No one has died, no houses were washed away that are known of, and the rain stopped before it reached the overflow level at Ball Mountain Dam.
Madeline Helser, substitute librarian at the Jamaica Memorial Library, spent Monday night with friends. While her home is on high ground, she was waiting for the fire department to give Depot Street Bridge the all-clear.
Helser said the library will stay open as usual for anyone who needs a welcoming place during this stressful time. Only a few have needed to take the library up on its offer, she said. With more rain predicted later this week, she is hoping for the best.
In the early hours of Tuesday, Helser and several friends walked their friends' horses along Route 30 to higher ground. She said she feels that the community comes together during emergencies.
Few problems in Brattleboro
In Brattleboro, minor flooding was reported at Mountain Home Trailer Park. Town officials said all occupants either evacuated, or decided to shelter in place, on Monday.
Ames Hill and Marlboro roads were also closed briefly. Brattleboro Public Works Director Daniel Tyler said Monday that while all roads were passable by Tuesday, “crews will be completing assessments, prioritizing, and making repairs in the coming days.”
Tyler said in the event of road closures due to future rain, up to date closures can be viewed at bit.ly/722-bratt-roads-closed, or contact the Department of Public Works at 802-254-4255.
At a July 11 special meeting of the Selectboard, Chair Ian Goodnow opened the meeting with a response to “the catastrophic flooding that took place on Monday.”
“Our thoughts go out to those most affected,” he said.
Noting that Brattleboro and its residents were “lucky to escape the worst,” he acknowledged those in town in the “marginalized communities” were, indeed, affected.
Goodnow thanked emergency services and other “community partners” for addressing the emergency in addition to tackling a three-alarm fire on Canal Street in the middle of the day.
He called on the town to provide what it can to others “as they begin the long road of rebuilding their communities.”
Town Manager John Potter said as of Tuesday afternoon, all rivers and streams in town “have stabilized” and that despite the 50 washouts in town - the worst in the Black Mountain Road area - the highway department expects to have all of them stabilized before the rain currently predicted for Thursday.
Potter added that floodplain restoration work along Whetstone Brook “probably avoided significant evacuations of as many as 120 homes.”
How to help
• The Vermont Community Foundation has established the VT Flood Response & Recovery Fund 2023 to coordinate and distribute support to the communities where it is most needed in the days, weeks, and months to come. More information can be found at vermontcf.org/vtfloodresponse.
• Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) is currently addressing issues such as temporary housing, food, clothing, and case management to help people access state/federal assistance, cleanup funds, and more. They can be reached at 800-464-9951 or at [email protected].
• The American Red Cross of Northern New England is also assisting with relief efforts. See redcross.org/local/me-nh-vt/get-help.html for more information.
• Vermonters should contact Vermont 211 to report flood damage and to get information on shelters for people affected by the storm and to register with FEMA and the Small Business Administration for recovery help.
• Shelters were opened at 15 sites around Vermont, including Flood Brook School, the Town Hall, and the South Londonderry Baptist Church in Londonderry, the Masonic Lodge in Jamaica, and NewBrook Fire & Rescue in Newfane.
• For those who would like to volunteer to help with recovery efforts, Vermont Emergency Management urges them to sign up formally at vermont.gov/volunteer.
“Please don't self-deploy,” the agency posted on Facebook.
More information is available at vermont211.org, or by calling 211.