By Carla Occaso
Fear and gratitude poured out from Montpelier city leaders and residents during a Zoom meeting July 12 — the day after the recent flood left the city in many cases gutted and destroyed.
Most downtown Montpelier restaurants, stores, and churches are completely shut down as of July 16. Many downtown residences have also been turned inside out as contaminated water and sludge-soaked items — from furniture to insulation to drywall to everything imaginable sits in dirty, smelly piles along the city’s main thoroughfares of Main, State, Elm, Langdon, and other streets. Trash collectors don’t have the capacity to pick up the trash except for in incremental steps as described by City Manager Bill Fraser during the debriefing July 12 relative to the flood occurring the evening of July 10 and into the morning of July 11 as the Winooski River watershed overflowed into the streets of Montpelier and surrounding towns. The event caused at least two known fatalities and an inconceivable amount of property and infrastructure damage.
During the regular city council meeting (held remotely), City Manager William Fraser described how the night unfolded for city staff members, who worked through the night and at one point had to flee the city for an office on higher ground in which to set up shop for emergency dispatching services as an unknown volume of floodwater deluged the city. Meadow neighborhood resident David Dobbs described the night as “terrifying,” while City Councilor Cary Brown said the night was “one of the more frightening things I’ve ever experienced.” Councilor Tim Heney had to excuse himself early in the meeting, saying he was in the midst of tending to nine of his buildings that were still flooded. The water had not yet completely receded at the Wrightsville dam located just above the city on the North Branch of the Winooski, and meeting participants appeared to be still on edge.
Fraser responded to feedback from Dobbs, who said lack of detail about the velocity and volume of water possibly to be released from the dam into his neighborhood caused great distress. Additionally, the aspect of being told there were not many evacuation routes — but not being told specifically which roads were open and which were closed — added to the concern. The advice given residents living near the North Branch was to go to the upper levels of their own homes.
“I would have appreciated to find out how high and fast the North Branch would run, or at least some evidence the city had tried to get an informed answer to that question. I could only conclude the city had no idea how bad it could get. This alone was terrifying. Secondly, it was infuriating to be told that there were few evacuation options but not what those options were. Without those options, my only option was to stay in a house I had just been told would be slammed by a wall of water,” Dobbs said.
The Experience of Montpelier’s City Manager and Barre, and Montpelier Emergency Dispatchers
Fraser said city officials heard about water levels threatening to go over the spillway at the dam around 3 a.m. At that time, Fraser said he and a handful of other city staff members on duty in downtown Montpelier spoke to Vermont dam safety individuals. One of the dam safety officials spoke to Fraser from atop the Waterbury dam. Fraser said he conveyed information regarding water levels at the dam to Montpelier residents directly as they were told over the phone. “They sent us an inundation map, and that showed us it was really dependent on how much water came over how bad it was going to be, so we did not have reliable information.” Therefore, he was left with the choice of either giving out no information or giving out what little information he had regarding “this potential catastrophic event.” Fraser said they decided to at least let people know about the concern at the dam. When someone from dam safety did arrive at Wrightsville, the water was 17 feet below the spillway (a part of the dam structure designed to allow for a controlled release of water if levels start to reach the top of the dam). Then, the next time they spoke, water had reached eight feet below the spillway. And by the time the city sent out notice about a potential dam containment issue, the water had gone up to four feet below the spillway within an hour and a half’s time.
And as waters rose, Fraser and the emergency dispatchers moved operations “on the fly” up to the water treatment center in Berlin “without losing a single dispatch call and trying at the same time to keep on top of the dam information,” he said. When it got to within one foot below the spillway, the dam experts could still not assure Fraser it would not spill over, although it did eventually stabilize. “Sorry our information was not more complete but those were the conditions we were operating under,” Fraser said.
Ultimately water levels reached within a foot from the spillway but never actually went over that day. However, water did flood across the Horn of the Moon Road approaching the dam, this Bridge reporter was told by an eyewitness during an in-person reconnoiter.
Other city department heads were then invited to relay their experiences.
Montpelier Police Department
Police Chief Eric Nordenson reported that as of the meeting time, the emergency services dispatch center was still operating out of the Berlin office. Back in the Montpelier headquarters, internet service had just been restored, but the phone connection was still a struggle as some connection tower lines were still under water. The building itself had flooding in the basement, but the rest was okay.
Fire Chief Robert Gowans said his department spent the night evacuating the fire department building and setting themselves up as split crews. “We sent half of our equipment and crews to the college (Vermont College of Fine Arts) and the other half staged at National Life,” Gowans reported. However, as of July 12 they were back in the downtown Montpelier building. Headquarters in downtown Montpelier still had about three feet of water as of the meeting, and lots of damage. And on the first floor, the apparatus floor, the small dispatch area, the deputy chief’s office, and the adjacent secured office were significantly damaged with four-and-a-half feet of water. The offices are completely destroyed and need to be replaced from the furniture to the sheetrock.
But speaking of the Wrightsville dam, Gowans said as of the meeting water levels were still at about 14 inches below the spillway. And floodwaters there were only just trickling over the road itself. But Vermont Dam Safety Officer Benjamin Green “assured me if we were to get more big storms they would be out there. They would be on site and continue to assist us,” Gowans said.
Department of Public Works
Kurt Motyka said his crew worked throughout the night of the flood mostly trying to open up drainways and directing waters away from property. “We had debris building up on bridges so we had crews go out and remove some of that so we had water pass through and not spread out onto properties,” Motyka said. Also, crews were out and about marking hazards as they happened — such as putting up signs and barricades and cones around sinkholes. “Our primary focus was to minimize damage and maintain public safety. The crew essentially worked all through the night doing that, and the next day we went to a split crew.” By the afternoon of July 12, most of the initial sludge had been cleaned up except on Langdon and Elm streets, and the bike path. That work would continue in the coming days, with the help of two street sweepers from South Burlington (where Montpelier’s former Assistant City Manager Jessie Baker is now city manager).
Additionally, trash removal is going to be done with contracted services beginning the night of July 12, working first with downtown businesses and commercial buildings, and then on to residential properties. FEMA will only pay for material and staff to work on public property, with the exception of trash removal, Motyka said.
And as for the water system, they issued a boil water notice, not because there is a known source of water contamination, but because there is so much activity and so much flood water that they decided it was a safe precaution. Additionally, there have been numerous breaks in service connections. “What I’m hearing from staff is that water is filling up basements, and oil tanks are actually floating up and breaking off services inside the buildings. I think we had almost 20 of those today where we have been turning off service lines,” Motyka said. However, there was no damage at the wastewater treatment plant, even though water came up over Dog River Road. Still, Motyka had one staff member spend the night at the plant to monitor the situation.
Several city councilors praised the work of the volunteers coming from the community to help flood victims. Over 1,200 people signed up to become volunteers in an effort spearheaded by Montpelier Alive, Alec Ellsworth, and Kelly Murphy. People who still want to volunteer in this ongoing situation may fill out the volunteer form located on the city’s website, montpelier-vt.org.
After the debriefing, Fraser told the city council that the city hall building has been badly damaged and the downstairs offices where the Department of Public Works, Planning, and Zoning exist are out of commission. Additionally, the elevator is damaged and nonfunctional, but it had been on schedule to be replaced soon.
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