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What’s Next?

Remember last week? Vermont Strong.

We rushed downtown. Picked out our favorite shop — where we buy our books, our tools, our coffee — and got to work.

That was the easy part. The decisions were fairly simple — whether to rip out the shelf, or how to get the cooler out the back door. It didn’t matter whether you were certified or had any skill. You just pitched in.  We put on boots and gloves and started ripping. Then we went to the basement for the foulest of work. Three feet of water. Everything a toxic, disgusting mess. But the first phase of work was done. 

Many of these store owners have experienced this before: Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, the flood of 1992. But despite the prior experience, we were unprepared. There was no plan. No system in place. Just folks pulling together to save their community. 

Now the floodwaters have receded. Basements are, for the most part, empty. The sun is out and we are breathing a bit. The adrenaline rush of the first week of flood rescue and helping is over. And now we move on to the harsh reality of what comes next. Now comes the hard part.  How do you pay for all this cleanup, dry out, and repair? How do you pay rent?  Who pays that bill, the landlord or the business owner? How do you pay your staff, who has become your cleanup crew? Where is FEMA? Whom do I call?

The governor is having press conferences and issuing updates. But where is the cavalry? The garbage has been on the sidewalk for a week. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans there was an in- charge Army guy at the airport who took control of all rescue operations.  That person is not here. We are on our own. I spoke to five business owners this week about the ultimate question. Do you rebuild? Here are some of the answers:

“I can’t even get the landlord to answer the phone to help decide how to pump out the basement.’’

“We’re not coming back until they do something about that river.’’

“Why would you rebuild a business when you know this will just happen again and again?’’

“We need to move the city. This is insane to have the state capitol at the intersection of two rivers.’’

The despair on the faces of the business owners is real and deep.  One landlord approached his tenant and asked, “Are you OK?’’

She paused. A deep, uncomfortable, desperate, exhausted look that said: “I just don’t know.’’ And she went back to shoving stuff into her Subaru. 

As always with disasters, there is a large gap between what is happening in real life and what the political system delivers. As I said, the adrenaline rush of the first week is gone. Downtown Montpelier is deserted, save for the trucks, the hum of generators, assorted insurance adjusters, FEMA folks, and business owners. The heroes of that first week have gone back to their own jobs and lives. 

Peter Walke, a former top environmental official in New York and Vermont and a Navy vet who knows disasters, explained this gap on my VT Viewpoint radio show this week. He said governments are well suited to take care of long-term problems but not so good at the immediate.

He, like so many others, volunteered his time to address the immediate: water, bleach, food, socks, a friendly face, ripping out soaked sheetrock.

In the immediate, downtown Montpelier, and the many other towns that have been devastated — Johnson, Londonderry, Morrisville, Barre — are going it alone. Their business owners will dig out. But they need cash. Not a loan from the government that will come in the distant future. They already took out a loan to get through COVID. They need cash right now. They need to buy equipment. They need to pay staff, rent — not to mention pay themselves. These people have lives. They have mortgages to pay.  

We now have several funds to raise that money. We will keep talking about them on my radio show and listing them on websites and social media. Please give, and keep giving. Otherwise, that lovely golden capitol dome that everyone loves so much in downtown Montpelier, that symbol of small D democracy in Vermont, is very, very endangered.