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The Way I See It: A Deluge for the Ages Needs a Flood of New Ideas

We are now a month into the grand reckoning delivered by Biblical-level rains that swept away life as we knew it in downtown Montpelier. Rising floodwaters inundated businesses, left homes and commercial buildings uninhabitable, and ate up and spit out gravel roads like some feverish Hollywood-conjured Star Wars behemoth: RoadTron, the destroyer of highway budgets.

Perhaps, like me, you are still trying to wrap your head around what just happened. Walking through the city and observing the flood aftermath — the debris piled high in front of stores so vibrant just days earlier — is by far the most depressing thing I think I have experienced. Seeing every store’s innards vomited out, soiled and jumbled, was a gut punch.

Would life ever return to them? Worse for me was the disturbing smell — musty, pungent, rot on steroids — and I could not help but wonder if this was a terrible metaphor for the future of the capital downtown.

This was likely heightened because of the irony that, two days before the flood, Hungarian relatives from Budapest arrived on a long-planned visit for a packed agenda of Vermonty things: hikes, swimming, paddleboarding, arts events, dining out. I proudly showed them around our handsome downtown, treating them to a lunch of Vietnamese cuisine at Pho Capital, a fun stroll through shops on Langdon Street, and stellar cappuccinos and pastry at Bohemian Cafe. Budapest ain’t got nothing on us!

Needless to say, most of those planned activities never happened. On the morning of Tuesday, July 11, I walked to the bottom of my driveway in Adamant to discover that Bliss Pond Road had a four-foot waterfall and a roaring whitewater stream that had carved a canyon 11 feet deep at the east end of the road. (We measured it!) In 24 hours, water moved more gravel and stone than our road crew had in an entire summer.

So much for well-laid culverts (and plans). No famous Morse Farm creemees. No farewell cocktails at Barr Hill — wiped out by heavy thunderstorms and an early closing. As a tour director, I deserve a fat zero on Yelp. On the other hand, Flora, all of 18 years old and a sophisticated city girl, saw a bear, deer, two baby skunks, and what Mother Nature on a rampage looks like. Her exact words: “I think it is very wild here!”

But surprisingly, what they noticed most was something entirely different. Sometimes it takes a new set of eyes to reveal old truths. They loved swimming in the clear silky waters of No. 10 pond in Calais. They were astounded that I could walk into a neighbor’s house though he wasn’t there. More, that the place was unlocked. That just about everywhere we went, I always knew someone and struck up conversations. At the friendly small-town ambiance that included aromatic Vermont cheeses, artisan bakers, the cosmetic wonders of Splash, and a mouth-searing Thai takeout joint.

I have never had a good Pollyanna bent: too many years in journalism (plus I’m inherently a skeptic). I am not sure at all what Montpelier’s business base will look like and cannot fathom how one weighs all the factors that go into a post-flood decision. Rebuild, or cut your losses and move on?

At the 10,000 foot level, there is the existential question of what to make of experiencing three 100-year-floods in just 12 years (the flood of May 2011, Tropical Storm Irene in August the same year, and now our as-yet unnamed deluge of 2023). And that does not count the spring ice-jam flood of 1992. Resiliency only goes so far. A wag might suggest the writing (or floodline) is on the wall. Again.

I have heard facetious suggestions (I think) that the whole city should move up the hill to the Vermont College campus. (Is Harry Potter’s magic wand available for hire?) The dark humor reflects the brutal calculus facing many property owners, businesses and the state itself. Gov. Phil Scott is among those forced to move out of a state office building as a result of the flood.

And yet, the vibrant heart of a community and downtown like Montpelier is not measured only by dollars but also by the will after the weekend of July 9–10 to put on Muck boots, clean up, and rebuild the place.

None of us knows what Montpelier will look like years from now. Untangling the issues facing a downtown split by two rivers amidst climate change, well, daunting does not begin to cover it. My own thought is that for starters, the city should prohibit storing anything in basements and build a shared community/state warehouse for all businesses — up high somewhere. But what do businesses do about the threat of flooding above their basements?

It’s time for a lot of smart minds in Vermont to start thinking. The city is worth the effort.