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Montpelier Flood Watch: Helpful tips to stay safe and avoid damage before, during, and after floods

Photo courtesy of City of Montpelier Planning and Community Development Department

Montpelier is a city that has experienced flooding since its inception, with recorded events back as far as July 1830. These included the Great Flood of 1927 and the ice-jam flood in 1992, both of which caused significant damage. In the past, the city responded by building dams, levees, and channelizing the rivers and streams, but today, efforts by city, state, and federal governments focus on “avoidance” by keeping people and property away from danger.

To achieve this aim locally, as the spring thaw begins to melt the snow and ice, the City of Montpelier’s Department of Planning & Community Development provides these eight tips to help ensure you and your property remain safe and secure before, during, and after a flood.

Know your flood risk: Residents who live along or near the Winooski, North Branch, Dog, or Stevens Branch rivers may be in the floodplain. The floodplain is a low-lying area adjacent to a waterway that is generally subject to flooding and often designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as an area that has a 1-percent chance of being flooded each year. To help you determine where your property is in relation to the floodplain, please contact the city’s Department of Planning & Community Development. The staff can look up this information for free. Flash flooding can also occur along any stream, and many of these streams are not mapped as flood hazards by FEMA. Understand that any quiet brook can become raging river under certain circumstances and plan ahead.

Build safety factors into your design: All development in the floodplain requires permits. Please call so we can determine what will be required. If you are building a new home, you will be required to elevate your home above the base flood elevation in order to prevent waters entering your home. Other than not building in the floodplain at all, this is always the best alternative. Many of us, however, have older homes, built before floodplains were mapped and regulations in place. For these buildings we have other floodproofing options to help retrofit your home:

• Elevate your building above the base flood elevation;

• Install closures and sealants around doors and windows;

• Construct new watertight walls;

• Install flood vents in existing walls or construct floodwalls or levees;

• Elevate the furnace, water heater, and electric panel if susceptible to flooding;

• Install “check valves” in sewer traps to prevent flood water from backing up into the drains of your home;

• Seal walls in basements with waterproofing compounds to avoid seepage.

It is also important not to dump trash or any other debris around your home, including leaves, into ditches, streams, or rivers. A plugged channel cannot carry water, and when it rains, it may cause flooding. Owners of property near waterways should do their part to keep banks clear of debris.

Fortunately the city is available to guide you with specifics about projects in the flood hazard area. Development of any type within the floodplain requires a permit prior to commencement. This will provide the city and state with the opportunity to inform you of any requirements needed to meet the minimum standards as well as to make any suggested changes that could improve safety and reduce flood insurance costs.

At a minimum, new buildings are required to be built above the base flood elevation or flood-proofed below it. Also, additions or improvements that exceed 50 percent of the value of the existing building are treated as new buildings and must be raised above the base flood elevation or otherwise flood proofed, if applicable. Always check with the city before you store materials, clear vegetation, re-grade, or fill on your property within the flood hazard area.

Buy flood insurance: The most important flood protection device, after prevention, is flood insurance. If your property is located in the floodplain, and you do not have flood insurance, talk to your insurance agent. Homeowner’s insurance policies do not cover damage from floods. If your lending institution is requiring that you purchase flood insurance, and you believe that you have little or no risk, there are tools available to determine your risk and potentially remove the requirement. Please contact the planning department for information on what tools are available.

For buildings that are not in the mapped flood hazard area, flood insurance may still be valuable. We are happy to discuss the options and advantages.

The City of Montpelier also participates in a voluntary program through FEMA called the Community Rating System (CRS) and has implemented a number of initiatives in an effort to reduce flood damage. As a result of our participation in the CRS, residents receive a 5-percent discount in flood insurance rates for the municipality and individual policyholders. We are currently working to improve our rating, which will improve our discount percentage.

Make an emergency plan—prepare a kit: There are lots of tools online to help make emergency plans, but FEMA has a site at ready.gov/floods. Emergencies don’t always give you the time to plan and gather resources, so having a plan and a kit allows you to act quickly and have a common meeting point or communication plan for when your family is separated.

Montpelier now uses VT-ALERT as its emergency notification system. Sign up for VT-ALERT at vtalert.gov

“Be aware” during flood watches: When flooding is likely, follow the City of Montpelier on Facebook and listen to the radio or television for information. Montpelier is vulnerable to flash flooding, and conditions can change quickly. Know where to go if you need to reach higher ground quickly by foot. You should get out your emergency kit and make preparations.

Around your home you should bring in outdoor furniture, move essential items to an upper floor, and turn off utilities at the main switches or valves if instructed to do so. You should also disconnect electrical appliances, but do not touch electrical equipment if you are wet or standing in water.

“Take action” during flood warnings: This may require either moving to higher ground or evacuating if directed to do so. If there is any possibility of a flash flood, move immediately to higher ground. Do not wait for instructions to move. Be aware of streams, drainage channels, canyons, and other areas known to flood suddenly. Flash floods can occur in these areas with or without such typical warnings as rain clouds or heavy rain.

Sometimes evacuation is necessary. If you have to leave your home, remember these evacuation tips:

Do not walk through moving water. Six inches of moving water can make you fall. If you have to walk in water, walk where the water is not moving. Use a stick to check the firmness of the ground in front of you.

Do not drive into flooded areas. If floodwaters rise around your car, abandon the car and move to higher ground if you can do so safely. A foot of water is enough to float many vehicles. Finally, two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles, including SUVs and trucks. Turn around. Don’t drown!

Return home only when safe: After a flood it is important to listen to the news and to call city hall to see whether it is safe to return. During a flood a number of utilities and areas may not be safe. For example:

• The drinking water supply may not be safe to drink.

• Remaining floodwaters may be contaminated by oil, gasoline, or raw sewage.

• Water may be electrically charged from underground or downed power lines.

• Roads may have weakened and could collapse under the weight of a car.

• Stay away from downed power lines and report them to the power company.

• Stay out of any building if it is surrounded by floodwaters. Use extreme caution when entering buildings that had previously been flooded; there may be hidden damage, particularly in foundations.

• Septic tanks and leaching systems may have failed and should be serviced as soon as possible. Damaged sewage systems are serious health hazards. Clean and disinfect everything that got wet. Mud left from flood water can contain sewage and chemicals.

Document damage and get permits: After a flood it is very important to contact your insurance agent and the planning department before repairing any damage or rebuilding. This is critical to remaining eligible for federal assistance if it becomes available. Taking pictures of damage and working with the planning office is the fastest way to get moving forward without jeopardizing your assistance.

Although the city, state government, the Army Corps of Engineers, and FEMA have constructed flood mitigation devices, enacted various forms of legislation, and initiated numerous activities and programs to mitigate flooding and flood damage to the city, the threat remains significant. The Montpelier Hazard Mitigation Plan, adopted in 2014, presents strategies to mitigate future flood losses in the event a flood does occur.

It is possible that as the shape of land changes over time or new information becomes available, properties once believed to be in the floodplain might, in fact, no longer be. In March of 2013 new floodplain maps became effective. Properties that had been in the floodplain may no longer be, and properties that hadn’t been in the floodplain in the past may be now. If you have questions about the location of the floodplain, please contact the planning department.

The City of Montpelier and the Department of Planning & Community Development are here to help you with your questions regarding flooding in our community. Multiple staff members are specially trained in floodplain management and receive annual training in this area. We can provide you with information about local flooding hazards, flood safety, flood insurance, property protection measures, and mapping and regulatory assistance. We have many informational brochures and pamphlets here in the office. We can assist with reading and understanding NFIP maps and print them out for you. You can also ask the librarian and the Kellogg Hubbard Library for the flood information that we have provided to them. Please do not hesitate to email me, Audra Brown, at abrown@montpelier-vt.org for more information. If email is not possible, you may call  (802) 223-9506.

This article is sponsored by City of Montpelier Planning and  Community Development Department.