Home News and Features The Hub at the Center of Montpelier’s Disaster Recovery

The Hub at the Center of Montpelier’s Disaster Recovery

Members of the Montpelier Youth Conservation Corps and city Parks Department staff gather at the Parks Department shop in Hubbard Park on August 1 before fanning out to work on flood-damaged trails in North Branch Park and at the flood-damaged Feast garden. Bottom row, left to right: Ella Thomas, Mayla Landis-Marinello, Finley Torrens-Martin, Abdul Wahab Majboor, Ryaz Rahman, Cadence Tyler, Cole Saunders. Top row, Nicholas Robertson, Alec Ellsworth, Joseph Ferris, Ethan Borland, Jasper Turner, Lena Donofrio, Ben Wetherell, Anna Blackburn, Charlie Watt, Leila Faulstich-Hon, James Marino. Photo by John Lazenby.
Even as the Winooski and North Branch rivers jumped their banks and filled downtown Montpelier with muddy water on July 10 and 11, a plan was in the works to help the town get back on its feet. By mid-day on July 11, while kayakers paddled on State and Main streets, three people — Alec Ellsworth, Katie Trautz and Peter Walke — had formed “the hub,” where those devastated by the flood could find food, clean water, supplies, and volunteers.

Monday night, Trautz, the executive director of Montpelier Alive (an independent nonprofit downtown support organization) evacuated her family to Ellsworth’s home. A family friend and the Montpelier Parks and Trees director, Ellsworth lives in a higher elevation within Hubbard Park. Ellsworth, who already coordinates volunteers as part of his job with the city, got the call that night that he’d be in that role through the crisis.

“So it was a partnership from the beginning with the city and Montpelier Alive,” Trautz said. Simultaneously, Efficiency Vermont managing director and former Montpelier Alive board member Peter Walke stepped up to assist with coordinating volunteers, drawing on his experience having managed flood recovery in the past.

“The three of us came up with a plan and that plan was the hub,” Trautz said.

Located in the empty lot between Shaw’s supermarket and The Drawing Board on Main Street, the hub quickly became essential. In those early days it looked to a passerby like a makeshift encampment with a smattering of canopies barely keeping the seemingly endless rain off a bustling mish mash of people, supplies, tables, and chairs, with deliveries coming in and out all day long.

It became a temporary site for the flooded-out food pantry, and a location for clean water fill ups. Pallets of water bottles sat on the sidewalk nearby — food tents popped up offering free meals. Tables were continuously refilled with rows of donated mops, buckets, and cleaning supplies to be distributed to those who needed them. Piles of loaned and donated shovels, dehumidifiers, shop vacs, and fans sat in organized piles throughout the site while a table for volunteers — and those who needed help — saw steady traffic throughout each day.

Donations and offers to volunteer poured in, not just from the local community, but from around the state and the country.

“We provided the space,” Trautz said. “We initiated the supply donations, obtaining supplies and a system. Then the community very quickly stepped up. We were able to organize the community. But really, once the word was out there, it was the community that came to us.”

And, boy, did it come. “Like a fire hose all day every day,” Ellsworth said.

Nearly 4,000 Volunteers

By Aug. 4, nearly a month after Trautz, Ellsworth, and Walke set up the hub, 3,916 volunteers had come through, having helped at 281 different locations, and completed 822 unique volunteer recovery tasks, Ellsworth said in an email to The Bridge. He said the recovery work coordinated through the hub happened throughout central Vermont, in Montpelier, East Montpelier, Barre, Berlin, Brookfield, Middlesex, Northfield, and Plainfield.

Montpelier building owner Mary Boyce signed up at the hub to get help with the four flooded basements in her Saint Paul Street apartment building. A crew of volunteers showed up, “young and old.”

“They worked so hard going up and down the basement stairs dragging heavy wet bags and totes of all of our personal belongings that we lost,” Boyce said. “I don’t know what I would have done without them! I had to actually turn some volunteers away because we got it done in about six hours.”

A lot of the volunteer coordination was made possible because of Walke, who was given the week off by his employer, Efficiency Vermont. A former Naval Intelligence officer and former Vermont commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Walke has managed his share of disasters. He knew what to expect.

“I was on my way back from vacation in Washington State on Monday,” Walke said. “I flew in mid-day on the 10th and was seeing what was happening and planning for the worst. I live on one of the hills in Montpelier — knowing we might get cut off and eventually were — I wanted to get things ready.”

Tuesday morning, he reached out to Trautz and Montpelier city manager Bill Fraser offering help. Within hours he was tapping into his network of friends and family and Trautz dubbed him the “volunteer coordinator” of the space.

“It was remarkable how quickly things came together,” Walke said.

He initially sent out four emails a day with updates and requests (that eventually got consolidated down to a couple a week) and created a Google form for people to fill out asking for help. He was able to use that information to connect the thousands of volunteers who immediately signed up with those who needed their help. He set up tracking systems, including a Google spreadsheet, a website for signing up volunteers, and a Google Voice phone system to take messages. The whole thing meant that those at the sign-in table at the hub had information immediately available to connect volunteers, while prioritizing the most urgent needs.

It also allowed them to put together a larger crew of volunteers when needed, for those big cleanout jobs, like Boyce’s.

Montpelier Youth Conservation Corps

But the “real amazing work force” Walke said, was the Montpelier Youth Conservation Corps (MYCC), a group of 16 local teenagers who thought they were going to spend their summer building park trails and instead found themselves at the heart of one of the biggest disasters the city has ever seen.

Supervised by Ellsworth, they “shifted from their normal focus on building trails to mucking out basements and running our supply tent and doing deliveries to people who needed water and tools. They were incredible,” he said.

Montpelier Youth Conservation Corps members, from left, Cole Saunders, Jay Borland, and Erin Kelley walking down Main Street toward the hub during a flood-cleanup work day on July 12, 2023. Photo by John Lazenby. 
“They were only two weeks into their six-week session when the flood happened. They were able to pivot on a dime to flood relief instead of doing conservation work,” said Ellsworth. “The flood happened on a Monday and on Tuesday instead of going to the park, they just went downtown. Without them I don’t think any of this would have happened.”

After July 11, a routine began: Ellsworth arrived at the hub around 8 a.m. and the youth crew showed up by 8:30.

“First thing we did was send multiple crews around town to canvas all of downtown and surrounding neighborhoods to find out what was needed that day … That took a couple of hours to walk around and talk to people.”

While the MYCC crew canvassed downtown, Ellsworth, Trautz and Walke set up the hub, moving supplies from the recreation center on Barre Street where they were stashed each night, back to the open-air hub site.

Even with thousands of volunteers and the many people operating the hub, not to mention dozens of people making and serving free food every day for three weeks, Ellsworth credits the bulk of the work to the crew of local youths.

“The impact of our Parks staff, AmeriCorps members, and the MYCC crew members cannot be understated in the flood relief effort,” he said. “None of what happened in Montpelier as far as coordination of volunteers, supplies, and food would have been possible without their efforts. Those folks deserve all the credit and recognition for the success of our local efforts.”

As of Aug. 7, the hub is still open, Ellsworth said, “and we plan to keep it going in some form or another as long as there is a need.”