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Resilient Montpelier Is Thinking Ahead

The early stage of the July 2023 flood in downtown Montpelier. Photo by John Lazenby
Nearly a month after Montpelier and Barre were hard hit by the July 10 flood, the citizen group “Resilient Montpelier” met on Aug. 7 to discuss problems with Montpelier’s emergency preparedness and potential solutions. About 20 people came with their personal experiences of the flood.

“We needed to actually make a presence that the city council would recognize. There had to be a way of getting conversation going that really touched people’s hearts on what the vulnerabilities of our future might be,” said Dan Jones.

Find an Expert in Emergency Preparedness

The highest priority concern was the lack of emergency preparedness, participants said. Andrea Stander compared Montpelier with the town of Ludlow, where the recently hired emergency management director Angela Kissell had firefighter experience and organized an evacuation center.

Montpelier Alive along with the city’s parks department and other downtown businesses were extremely active, said Lisa Burns, but voiced her opinion that “the city itself was in absentia.”

Stan Brinkerhoff said that the middle school was used as an improvised shelter. He noted “many were elderly,” and “the lack of a shelter was very harmful.” 

“The Red Cross sets up in Barre, but there’s no way to get to Barre because the roads are closed,” said Dan Jones.

“All of the supplies should be brought to a known place in Montpelier, and there probably needs to be two,” said Burns, referencing Terrace Street being cut off from downtown.

After the flood, downtown Montpelier was crowded with volunteers. “People were very helpful, but I have to admit, every site I went to was like, there was nobody really in charge. Well, what can I do?” said Brian Slopey.

“Wet-wall, can’t call it drywall,” said Burns. “The wet-wall pile, they kept saying that a tractor was going to come and flatten it and move it, but it never came. And finally, I couldn’t heave the wet-wall that high above my head, so I wandered off. That was the end of my wet-wall moving career,” she added. “Had they moved it, I would have done a couple more hours.”

“Moving forward, we have to have a plan,” said Sandy Vitzthum.

Consolidate the Fragmented Communication

Common opinion among those at the meeting was that the city lacked an early warning system, and the information during the flood and in the weeks after was fragmented. Burns mentioned that cars downtown had time to escape until early afternoon the day of the flood, but many vehicles were ruined.

“It didn’t seem like anybody with emergency preparedness training was in any way involved in deciding about communications,” said Andrea Stander.

Without putting blame on the current leadership, the city is “supposed to have experts,” said Burns.

Evelyn Prim is the city’s communications coordinator, a position created to ensure the city can communicate more effectively. “As soon as we learned there would be significant flooding in Montpelier, the city immediately mobilized our crisis communication response team,” she said.

Meeting attendants said they found information, such as the boil water notice, through Front Porch Forum, Facebook, Instagram, text alerts, email lists, television, radio, and word of mouth. 

“There was communication,” said Brinkerhoff, but remarked the announcements “seemed fractured at first and difficult to follow, or even incomplete.”

Vitzthum said it is “inexcusable to rely on Front Porch Forum in an emergency scenario,” because people may not be aware of the forum, choose not to use it, or, in the case of one local person, are banned from using it.

“The city was putting out updates every two hours for the first week of the flood. During the second week, we transitioned to three updates per day, then one update per day for the third and fourth weeks,” wrote Prim.

Most communications were digital. “There was nothing from the city around town that you could just reference to see,” said Brinkerhoff. “I have turned off alerts on my phone,” said Vitzthum, “because they happen so often.”

Prim said the city “is actively working to expand our communication channels and methods.”

There was talk about the communication for the Wrightsville dam potentially breaching, or more accurately, overflowing. It was “just an alarmist kind of thing, that was totally unnecessary, and scared a lot of people, at like two or three o’clock in the morning on Tuesday,” said Jeff Cueto, a former chief hydrologist for the state of Vermont who knows dams.

“As we continue to expand our communication efforts, a major part of that will be listening to the needs and desires of our community regarding communication,” said Prim.

Resilience in Infrastructure

Donating to a town rebuilding the same structures that just got destroyed worried people at the meeting. Businesses are changing where possible, but many aren’t moving locations.

“That approach needs to be taken from the standpoint of mitigating the flood risk, and the impact to food and property and livelihoods,” said Stander. Dikes, dredging, and dams are “problematic,” Cueto said.

“Whether or not we agree if we can control the river, we can make buildings downtown that are more resilient,” said Brinkerhoff. “Maybe wood and drywall aren’t a great product on the first floor of buildings anymore.”

“The question is: is that a state responsibility? Do we have a lack of regional government?” said Jones. “Who’s going to do this?”

Prior to the flood, housing availability was already a concern. “But now it’s just impossible. If I do get a hold of a landlord, it’s not until October, November, who knows,” said one attendee. Providing community shelters could involve working with neighboring towns, such as Barre.

“Imagine moving the downtown business district uphill” to avoid floods, said Dave Gram. A hypothetical modern business district uphill could attract businesses that are closing or considering moving, such as Capitol Copy and Onion River Outdoors. “We have to think about shifting our economic focus away from the places that are so vulnerable,” said Stander.

“The emotional connection to our downtown is profound,” said Jones.

Economic necessities for building locations can outweigh long-term planning. “Why are skyscrapers still being built on the coast of Florida?” said Stander.

Our New Climate Reality

“There’s a bunch of overlapping crises,” said Jones. “Climate change is no longer a theoretical issue. It’s a reality […] And we’ve got to start making our plans and our priorities and our laws based on our assumption that this is our future reality.” 

In encouraging people to attend city meetings, Jones told the group, “the voice of resilient people who believe in a resilient future needs to be heard.”