Residents in Barre and Montpelier may be moving into the upper levels of their homes today. In Barre City, some homes were flooded up to five feet deep, and in Montpelier, the Wrightsville dam is just one foot from capacity as of 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. Officials in both cities are asking people to stay out of the downtown areas while rescue operations and evacuations are still underway.
After days of heavy rains in the region, central Vermont has weathered the biggest flood since the 1927 flood took out most of Vermont’s bridges. The damage is not yet assessed, but downtowns in Barre, Montpelier, and Waterbury were underwater Monday night and into Tuesday. On Sunday, President Biden issued an emergency declaration, freeing up federal assistance from FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security to flooded areas across the state.
The Barre Auditorium was set up as an emergency center on Monday for the whole region, and as of Tuesday morning is near capacity with 190 people, and more are on the way, said Barre City Fire Chief Keith Cushman. Capacity at the “Aud” is 200. Cushman said the number fluctuates as some people who were stranded during heavy rains are able to leave and others are coming in.
According to a release from the Vermont Department of Public Safety, “Vermont’s swift water rescue teams have performed more than 100 rescues throughout the state and are still very busy. Additional teams from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and North Carolina are in state and assisting, and others are in route.” Helicopters from the National Guard will be deployed to help with evacuations for those in remote areas inaccessible to swiftwater rescue teams.
Water levels at the Wrightsville dam have been rising to unprecedented levels, peaking at just one foot to capacity by 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. By late afternoon city officials reported the water in the 685-foot dam appeared to be leveling off.
“Every additional foot of water that goes over the spillway doubles the amount of water entering the city from the dam,” wrote Mary Smith, executive assistant to the city manager in an email update. “We are seeing a reduction of water in the downtown, Langdon Street, and VSECU areas so we have some capacity if we reach some overflow.
The dam, which usually provides flood protection to the city, spills into the North Branch River. It has been monitored by the Vermont Dam Safety Management group, said Montpelier Police Chief Eric Nordensen.
If the Wrightsville dam overflows, “This will be particularly bad along the North Branch River corridor and into the downtown,” Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser wrote in a press release. “Unfortunately, there are very few evacuation options remaining. People in at-risk areas may wish to go to upper floors in their houses.”
“If water exceeds capacity, the first spillway will release water into the North Branch River,” Fraser wrote. “This has never happened since the dam was built so there is no precedent for potential damage. There would be a large amount of water coming into Montpelier which would drastically add to the existing flood damage.”
“We’re asking folks (downtown) to stay put on upper levels [of their homes],” Murphy said “If there’s an emergency situation where they need help to call 911, we’ll get somebody to them as quickly as possible.”
Fraser said the city has asked for swift water rescue to be moved into the area, and the city has moved its operations to the water treatment plant uphill of downtown on Berlin Street. “
It’s not just your imagination that this is a big flood. This has been the second highest recorded water level for the Winooski River in history, behind only the historic 1927 flood. This is higher than 1992 and both 2011 flood events,” wrote the Montpelier Police Department on its Facebook page.
Flood waters reached nearly 28 feet in 1927, Murphy said. “Action level is at 11 feet,” Murphy said. “Seventeen feet is a major event. We’re at about 21 feet right now.”
Main Street Middle School — Temporary Shelter
The Main Street Middle School gym has been opened as a temporary shelter until buses can once again pick up residents and transport them to the Barre Aud, which is being staffed by the Red Cross, Nordenson told The Bridge.
Murphy said public safety employees have been working to evacuate people on Elm Street to the Middle School.
“There have been some swift water rescues [as well],” Murphy said, with two swift-water rescue teams in the city as of this writing.
City Moves Operations to Water Treatment Plant
City officials evacuated city hall in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and moved operations to the water treatment plant on Berlin Street, well uphill of downtown. Very few city staff members have had any sleep; police and public works staff members have been helping people evacuate through the night, according to Kelly Murphy, Montpelier’s assistant city manager.
Fraser said the city had already established operations jointly with Barre City at the plant, and is also moving its full emergency operations center to the treatment plant as well.
“Computer and radio systems at the Police Station may become incapacitated if floodwaters increase,” he wrote, ending the release with, “Again, could be a dangerous situation.”
According to Nordenson, “three radio towers positioned in Washington County used to dispatch fire and ambulances are currently not functional and Washington Electric has been notified to attempt repairs.”
Most of the city’s public safety and public works staff members have worked through the night and are now starting to stagger shifts so people can start getting some sleep, Murphy said.
At 10:57 p.m., the city of Montpelier announced it would be closing downtown until at least noon on Tuesday hoping the river would recede by then; they later adjusted that time to 3 p.m.
Barre City Underwater
Barre City police and fire departments have been rescuing and evacuating people from flooded homes throughout the night and into Tuesday, said Fire Chief Cushman.
“We’re still having high rapid water in our streets,” he said Tuesday morning. “We’re still planning and coordinating around what assets we need.”
Specifically, Cushman said, Barre City needs additional front-end loaders, dump trucks, and street sweepers.
The city has started to move abandoned vehicles as well, he said, mostly from people who drove their cars into deep flood waters “and their vehicles were disabled.”
“Don’t drive into a flood,” he pointed out.
Many people have been forced into the second floor of their homes, including the elderly, he said, so there has been a focus Tuesday morning on getting people to the emergency shelter at the auditorium.
As with Montpelier, the Barre City downtown is also closed off for most of Tuesday. Cushman specifically asked people to stay away from the flooded areas for sightseeing.
“It really is obstructive,” he said.
Nordenson also urged people to stay out of the downtown flooded areas.
“Roads throughout the area continue to be closed, and travel is very dangerous at this time,” he said in a release. “Please understand that all responders are at the max capacity and to only contact dispatch in an extreme emergency.”