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Thursday night an intense thunderstorm dumped between 4 inches and 5 inches of rainwater on central Vermont and St. Johnsbury. Within a matter of hours, the deluge engorged rivers and streams causing flash floods that poured muddy water into homes and residences, washed out culverts and carved out dirt roads. In all, about 180 people were evacuated from their homes as a result of the most devastating flash flood to hit the region in decades.
All that muck and water will travel downstream into Lake Champlain, which has been at a 500-year level flood stage for nearly a month. When the water reaches the big lake in a day and a half it will increase the lake which is now at 102.2 feet by 6 inches.
And there is, at the moment, no relief in store for the next few days — more thunderstorms are predicted in the region and with the ground already saturated, emergency management officials warn that areas that have already flooded could flood again.
After a daylong survey of all the damaged areas, Gov. Peter Shumlin sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting a federal declaration of a major disaster for the state. The governor’s request includes damage caused by Lake Champlain flooding that began on April 23. Vermont’s congressional delegation wrote to Obama as well, in support of Shumlin’s request.
The governor also activated 50 Vermont National Guard troops to help with evacuation efforts and flood mitigation.
Barre was the hardest hit. Mayor Thom Lauzon said there wasn’t a building in a 10-block area of the city that didn’t suffer some damage. By morning the Main Street and downtown parking areas were covered in a muddy silt that was 3 feet deep in places and caked onto buildings. The Harrington Avenue Bridge was washed out.
“The fortunate thing is there was no loss of life,” Lauzon said. The mayor said emergency crews went door to door in the middle of the night and evacuated about 130 people to the Barre Auditorium.
Lauzon said city officials are warning residents that have had standing water in basements to have electrical and heating systems evaluated by professionals before returning to their homes.
Of the commercial businesses in town, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus building sustained the most damage, according to Lauzon.
Rob Mitchell, special projects manager and the son of publisher John Mitchell, said that early Friday morning the brick structure filled with five feet of muddy water laced with oil and sewage. (Steve Pappas, Times Argus editor told reporter Dave Delcore it was three feet.) A new computer system that would have enabled the company to paginate the newspaper from Rutland was waterlogged in the flood. Mitchell said he doesn’t know if the press is seriously damaged. The newspaper will print an edition tomorrow morning at another facility. The Barre press was also used to print the Rutland Herald. Mitchell said, “Luckily we can publish online.” The building, according to a Times Argus report, is out of commission for the time being.
“I’m glad everyone is safe,” Mitchell said. “I think we’re able to continue operating in some ways, but it’s definitely a hit. I’m pretty sure our insurance will cover it.”
Lauzon, who toured the city with Shumlin Friday morning, said he expected the total damage estimates to top $1 million.
Undeterred by the damage and the muddy Main Street, Lauzon plans to go ahead with the annual Memorial parade on Monday. “If I had to crawl I’d go ahead with that parade,” Lauzon said. “It means too much to me. (Our armed forces) went through a lot worse than a little bit of silt.”
In St. Johnsbury, the governor inspected dirt roadways that nearly disappeared in landslides. Mud also cascaded through locked front doors and pushed through the basements of several residences. Lightning struck a Victorian home in the middle of the town during Thursday night’s storm and firefighters put it out before the building was totaled.
Montpelier’s woesMontpelier officials evacuated about 50 residents to the National Life building in the middle of the night when it became clear from forecasts that the North Branch was going to slide over its banks.
Residents woke up Friday morning to flooded basements and storefronts threatened by rising water. Cars in the parking lot behind State Street were covered by water from the North Branch of the Winooski River, and the Montpelier sewage treatment center had overflowed.
The Saturday farmers market site between Taylor and Main Street along the North Branch was a small lake, where several parked cars sat half submerged in the muddy water. City officials closed parts of Elm Street, which bore the brunt of the raging North Branch, and several cars sat almost completely underwater in a parking area by the Main Street Roundabout.
At Onion River Sports, which abuts the North Branch on Langdon Street, volunteers showed up to form a brigade to haul goods and about 600 bicycles out of the flooded basement as owner Andy Brewer, garbed in fly-fishing waders, worked with staff amidst the strong smell of fuel oil, which could be seen shining in the river. The water in early morning stood barely under the bottom of the bridge.
Montpelier was full of gawkers who came to look at the raging river flowing under the Winooski Bridge on Main Street by Shaw’s foodstore, where huge brown rooster tails of water stood where normally water flows over a small dam and the river was strewn with massive logs, oil cans, dumpsters and debris all going downstream.
Numerous business owners in Montpelier reported water levels in basements between six and eight feet deep. Speaking over the roar of multiple sump pumps operating along Langdon Street, Three Penny Taproom owner Matt McCarthy said flooding in his Main Street beer hall began at about 7:30 p.m. on Thursday. By 5 a.m. on Friday the business’ basement, used to store and age beer, was completely inundated.
“I’d say it was a solid 6 feet of water,” McCarthy said. “It’s definitely thousands and thousands of dollars in damages.”
On State Street, Positive Pie II owner Carlo Rovetto reported a similar situation as a crew of about ten worked to mop out the restaurant’s take-out counter and kitchen area. Rovetto estimated damages and losses at around $30,000. Although not opening on Friday, both he and McCarthy expected to be open on Saturday.
“We’re going to try,” Rovetto said. “We won’t be at full service. We’ll probably just be doing pizza and beer.”
Mayor Mary Hooper said people gathered downtown at an early hour to help business owners and residents cope with the flood. Within an hour 10 or 15 people emptied Vermont Trading post and moved the shop’s goods. Another group pulled boxes of paper out of Capitol Copy’s basement.
“We were doing that with every business,” Hooper said. “They asked what help do you need how can we help. It’s what you assume happens, but it’s really wonderful because it does in fact happen.”
A smelly problem
An effluent pit at Montpelier’s Wastewater Treatment Facility, which handles waste water for the capital as well as the town of Berlin, began overflowing late Thursday night and by Friday, plant operators said the effluent level had risen approximately 6 feet, dumping soft-ball sized grease balls and waste material across the plant’s lawn and parking lot. Chief Operator Bob Fischer said only the older part of the plant, built in 1964, was affected by the flooding. Newer parts of the plant, which sit back from the road and at a higher elevation, functioned through the night and had no problems.
Fischer said that while the flooding did cause damage – pumps, the main transformer and the odor control system in the older part of the plant were destroyed — very little, if any, wastewater made it into the Winooski River.
“Basically the river overpowered the effluent,” Fischer said, causing the waste water to back up into the plant and its parking lot. Nonetheless, Fischer said with all of the flooding, “the river’s taking stuff in from everywhere. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be drinking the water.”
Working with a hose to spray down steps and walls around the plant, plant operator Jerry Smith said he arrived at 5:30 a.m. on Friday to help deal with the clean up.
“The first thing I said when I got here was that I’ve never seen it this high before,” Smith said while spraying waste back into the pit. “The next thing I said was oh …., and you know what that last word is.”
An unfortunate pattern
Meteorologist Roger Hill said Vermont has been in a difficult weather pattern for more than a month now, and though it could abate next week, he isn’t necessarily banking on it.
“It’s been like a nightmare for the last 45 days or so with this crazy weather,” Hill said. “We’re kind of in this summertime thunderstorm pattern with above normal rainfall.”
Hill says precipitation amounts have been three to four times above normal this spring in northern and western Vermont.
Friday night’s storm will affect every county except Chittenden and Lamoille, but he anticipates the thunder cells will hit slightly south and east of where they broke Thursday night.
Hill described the pattern as a “gravy train of moisture streaming right out of the Gulf Stream.