As floodwaters began receding Tuesday, and Vermonters reckoned with the devastation of a record storm, shock mixed with a growing sense of dread at the long recovery ahead — and with lingering concern that more losses could yet be discovered.
As residents began sifting through ruined businesses, and hundreds of people sought temporary housing away from flooded homes, calls for search and rescue missions continued up and down the state, fueling a restless, anxious mood.
“It was an apocalyptic feeling,” said Dylan Woodrow, 29, of Montpelier, who paddled his kayak through more than three feet of water there Tuesday, asking people stuck in second-story apartments if they needed help.
Throughout the day, warnings that the nearby Wrightsville Dam might reach capacity, and require the release of more water, kept Mr. Woodrow and other residents of Montpelier, the state capitol, on edge. Reported to be six feet below the dam’s capacity in the early morning, the water crept to a foot below by afternoon, the Vermont Department of Emergency Management said in a statement.
Jennifer Morrison, the commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, said some areas were still too dangerous to reach by boat Tuesday, and helicopters were being used for some rescues. She urged people to continue to avoid flooded areas. “Don’t take any chances,” she said at a press conference.
No injuries or deaths were reported by midday Tuesday, but state leaders emphasized the continuing danger. “I want to reiterate that we are still in the very early stages of this disaster,” Ms Morrison said.
Governor Phil Scott called the flooding “historic and catastrophic,” warning at the news conference, “This is nowhere close.”
The two-day storm dumped more than eight inches of rain on some parts of Vermont. The storm also flooded some areas in New York State, where, in just 24 hours on Sunday, more than twice as much rain fell as is typical for the entire month of July, according to the National Weather Service. A 43-year-old woman died in a flash flood in New York on Sunday while trying to save her father’s dog.
Vermont’s Winooski River, which runs through Montpelier, crested at 21 feet early Tuesday, surpassing by two feet its highest level during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 but falling short of the record set in the 1920s. Irene killed more than 40 people as it swept the East Coast, including six in Vermont.
Lessons learned then helped inform a more proactive response in many Vermont towns during this week’s storm, police and fire chiefs said, as they preemptively evacuated residents from low-lying areas, efforts that may have helped prevent deaths.
Rescue crews from more than a half-dozen other states brought fresh personnel and equipment into central Vermont Monday and Tuesday, but for small volunteer fire departments, the ongoing effort was a strain. Deputy Chief Matthew Romei of the Berlin Fire Department said some of his department members worked 28 hours without a break. He credited them for responding to a landslide that covered a road in Barre and to roads where sinkholes opened up, causing sections of pavement to disappear.
“They have to rest and recover,” he said, “or they can’t go on.”
Interstate 89 reopened Tuesday morning after a portion was closed in both directions overnight, stranding dozens of drivers who found themselves stuck on on-ramps or at rest stops. Many smaller roads remained closed, however, adding to residents’ concerns.
“We’re safe, but we’re also pretty stuck here,” said Steve Sease, 76, of Montpelier. “There’s no way for us to get anywhere important. How would we get to the hospital if someone got hurt?”
Others, like Kayla Chartier, 34, wondered how long power outages and bus route cancellations would last. Ms. Chartier, who lives in a second-floor apartment on Montpelier’s flooded Main Street, said she waded through waist-deep water Monday night to find a place to charge her phone, and that she tripped and fell in the dark. On Tuesday, she was unable to refill needed prescriptions, with no car of her own and no buses running.
“I feel a little hopeless,” she said.
Many business owners who waited impatiently to regain access to their stores on Tuesday soon found their worst fears realized. Bob Nelson, who owns a 40-year-old hardware store in downtown Barre estimated he lost about $300,000 worth of inventory in the store’s flooded basement, which his insurance does not cover. He said the flooding was worse than after Tropical Storm Irene. “In 2011, we had almost four feet of water in the basement,” he said. “We didn’t have nine feet like we do now.”
President Biden declared a state of emergency for Vermont early Tuesday, unlocking federal resources and disaster relief.
The devastation in Montpelier shut down the city at the peak of the city’s summer tourist season, when visitors normally flock to its mountains, lakes and picturesque downtown. As residents contemplated the weeks and months of work ahead to recover and rebuild, some said they also feared the damage might keep visitors away long after the reopening of Main Street and its cafes and galleries.
However, some in the town of around 8,000 found solace in small gestures of support. Claire Benedict, co-owner of Bear Pond Books in downtown Montpelier, said she has received more than 50 text messages from concerned customers and friends offering to come and help clean up the store, pledging their support when it reopens.
“This is obviously devastating for downtown,” Ms. Benedict said, “but we’re not worried about help.”
Reporting was contributed by Anna Betts, Daniel Victor, Hilary SwiftRichard Beaven, Erin Nolan, Rebecca Carballo, Judson Jones and Siobhan Neela-Stock.