Vermont’s Catastrophic Floods and the Spread of Unnatural Disasters

On Sunday evening, rain began to fall in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where I live. By early the next morning, water was carving rivulets into my dirt driveway, and it seemed a portent of what was going to happen to the state’s nearly nine thousand miles of dirt roads—one of them mine. When I

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On Sunday evening, rain began to fall in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where I live. By early the next morning, water was carving rivulets into my dirt driveway, and it seemed a portent of what was going to happen to the state’s nearly nine thousand miles of dirt roads—one of them mine. When I went out to walk the dog, I saw that the culvert at the end of my driveway, which drains into the middle branch of the Middlebury River, could barely contain the volume of water thundering through it. Another inch and it would flood the road, potentially sending its soil and gravel down the river, too. Around here, the ground was already saturated before this storm; in June, parts of the state got three hundred per cent more rainfall than usual. About ten minutes after the dog and I were back inside, a tree, loosened in the soggy earth, fell over, narrowly missing our power line.

On Monday evening, after nearly twenty-four hours of precipitation, my daughter called from Norwich, a town about an hour and a half away, to tell me that the power was out. She also told me that the Ompompanoosuc River, near her house, had already risen nineteen feet at the Union Village Dam. I suggested that she come to my house, which is on higher ground, but she said that she couldn’t—many of the roads between us were closed. For many Vermonters, the recommendation to shelter in place was not optional. It was all they could do.

When I checked a few hours later, the Ompompanoosuc had risen forty feet. (As I write this, it is now up sixty feet.) It was high enough to flood low-lying areas on either side of it, forcing many residents to evacuate. Thankfully, the river is held back by a hundred-and-seventy-foot dam that—unlike many smaller dams in the state—was unlikely to overflow, and my daughter was fine. Even so, in nearby Thetford, rushing water was overwhelming the culverts that were meant to contain it, and was threatening to take out a major east-west thoroughfare that had recently been repaired. According to a spokesperson at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, more than a hundred roads were closed by Monday night.

Governor Phil Scott first began to call in reinforcements—boats, search-and-rescue teams, the National Guard—as the first drops of rain fell. Even he was not spared from the flooding: to get to the emergency-response center, he had to hike along a snowmobile trail to an open road, because the roads around his house were impassable. On Sunday night, Scott declared a state of emergency, and President Biden, who was then in Lithuania, approved it early on Tuesday; this activated the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response. During Scott’s press conference on Tuesday morning, the public-safety commissioner said that more than a hundred people had been rescued by swift boats. It is unclear what has happened to hundreds of unhoused people who were turned out of motels in June, after the state’s COVID housing program ended. Brenda Siegel, who ran for governor last year and runs a hotline for the volunteer group End Homelessness VT, said that advocates were having a hard time locating people who were “living rough,” because they generally try to stay hidden from the police, often by camping in the woods or under bridges.

On social media, people around the state were posting what by now have become familiar images of devastation in an era of extreme weather: submerged cars, flooded buildings, roads that had washed away. This time felt different—not only because they showed places I knew well but because they were from a mountain state far from the sea, not some coastal city threatened by rising seas and storm surges. Parts of New York’s Hudson Valley had also suffered the same fate, and, as the Times pointed out, in a warming world, the air holds more moisture, leading to “more intense and sudden rainfall, seemingly out of nowhere.” Rachel Cleetus, a policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the paper, “It’s just everywhere, all the time.”

By some estimates, two months’ worth of rain fell in Vermont in just two days. Few parts of the state were spared, but the valleys were hardest hit. Rising water on River Street in Woodstock, Vermont, caused a mass evacuation; although the rainwater didn’t inundate Main Street, it caused a water main to break. Danelle Sims, an adult-services librarian at the town’s Norman Williams Public Library, told me that workers had been searching for the fractured pipe for a full day and still hadn’t found it. In the meantime, the firehouse was letting people fill up jugs and telling them to boil the water before drinking it. The library was closed, Sims said, because “you can’t have a public space without water.”

Some of the storm’s most dramatic scenes have played out in Montpelier, the state capital, where water cascaded over the banks of the Winooski River, poured down the main street, and made the lawn of the statehouse look like a beachfront. Hour by hour, the water behind the Wrightsville dam, north of town, climbed. By Tuesday morning, only six feet stood between the major catastrophe that had already occurred and a far worse potential calamity—a dam breach that could incapacitate one of Vermont’s only cities. “There is no precedent for potential damage,” the city manager, William Fraser, posted on Facebook. So far, that hasn’t happened, but, as the Governor pointed out in his Tuesday-morning press conference, the sunshine predicted for Tuesday and Wednesday was not the end of the story: more rain is predicted for Thursday and Friday, and it “will have nowhere to go in the oversaturated ground.”

In 2src11, when Hurricane Irene stalled over Vermont, flooding parts of the state with eleven inches of rain and causing nearly a billion dollars in damage, many residents considered it a fluke—a storm too devastating to repeat itself anytime soon. Nothing like this had happened since the Great Flood of 1927, which took out roads and bridges, breached dams, killed farm animals, and left around a foot of mud on the floors of Montpelier stores. “No one was fully prepared for Irene when it happened,” Dennis Pinkham, the external-affairs director for FEMA Region I, who was working in the agency’s operations center in 2src11, told me. “That storm helped us prepare for this one. Everyone was in better shape because of the mitigation work that was done afterward.” In the wake of Irene, the state started to reëngineer roads, expand culverts, and update disaster plans. “They told us it was a hundred-year flood,” Sims, the Woodstock librarian, said. “Now, with climate change, it seems like the hundred-year flood is going to be every ten or twelve years.”

On Tuesday, not long before the sun finally came out—the lull that the Governor warned us about—I spoke to Vermont’s senior senator, Bernie Sanders. He told me that he has been trying, with little luck, to get his colleagues to focus on the existential threat of climate change. “Vermont can be a model for the country,” he said. “It can do all the right things—and it won’t matter, because this is a global crisis. You know that movie ‘Don’t Look Up’? We’ve got to look up. The crisis is now, and we’ve got to address it.” ♦

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