Home News and Features North Branch Café: ‘The gift of not being destroyed’

North Branch Café: ‘The gift of not being destroyed’

by Elise Annes

Lauren Parker opened North Branch Café on State Street in 2012, a few months after Tropical Storm Irene rolled through Vermont. As a Montpelier resident for 37 years, she’s experienced several floods that saturated downtown. This one, she says, is the worst.

“At our business, we were extremely fortunate,” she says. “The water reached the top step but never made it to the café floor. In fact, a friend across the street was texting me photos of water creeping up the steps … and then it stopped.”

Her basement, however, was a very different story. Her staff had moved much of the inventory upstairs, but floodwaters swamped the equipment and remaining supplies. “The chest freezer was floating,” she says. “You could see where it bumped into the walls.”

Then the volunteers showed up. “It was unbelievably humbling,” she says. Teenagers hauled out the freezers, fridges, and all manner of soggy, muddy stuff. “Montpelier Alive literally saved our skins. There aren’t enough contractors in Vermont to do all this work, but they found us volunteers with tear-down skills.” Despite a thorough, prompt clean-up and dry-out, the next step will be mold remediation.

“We are open,” she says, looking both exhausted and determined. “We will remain open. Businesspeople need to eat. Visitors need to eat. As I said, we are fortunate compared to many peers, so now my biggest concern is the community.”

Once her back room is cleaned out — it’s currently full of boxes — she will make it available to other businesses for free. “They can have meetings or a quiet space to work. They can bring their own food. They can take a nap if they want. We have the gift of not being destroyed,” she says, “and I want to share that.”

Looking to the future, Parker feels strongly that effective mitigation must focus upstream. “By the time water from the North Branch hits Montpelier, it has nowhere to go. It will be very hard to make these buildings more flood resilient. I hope the state brings in watershed experts to help us think about how the land upstream can divert and absorb more water before it gets to the city.”

“I don’t see any solution,” she adds, “other than the river.”

Finally, she offers thanks to everyone contributing to Montpelier Strong. The business grants currently offered are modest compared to the need — downtown businesses are facing an average of $186,000 in losses, she says — “but these grants are therapeutic. They give us hope.”

Elise Annes is a communications, marketing, and organizational development consultant with Momentum Communications. Elise works with clients in the areas of conservation, affordable housing, food security, education, energy, and health and well being. Previously, she was part of the leadership team at Vermont Land Trust and worked in many communities across the state while based in Montpelier.