Home Commentary Let’s Be Ready Next Time

Let’s Be Ready Next Time

By Dave Gram

The best thing that resulted from the flooding disaster that hit Montpelier in July was the volunteer hub that sprang into action in the days following. It was inspiring to see the community come together in the face of such adversity. Montpelierites and residents of surrounding towns that also received help from the volunteers owe a big debt of gratitude to organizers Katie Trautz of Montpelier Alive, Peter Walke of Efficiency Vermont, and the city’s Parks and Trees Department director, Alec Ellsworth, as well as teenaged members of the Montpelier Youth Conservation Corps and hundreds of others who showed up and dug into the dirty, smelly, backbreaking work that was needed during early stages of recovery.

Numbers reported by The Bridge on Aug. 8 (“The Hub at the Center of Montpelier’s Disaster Recovery,” by Cassandra Hemenway) nearly a month after the flood of July 10 and 11, tell a great story: 3,916 volunteers had checked in with the hub; they helped at 281 discrete locations with 822 volunteer recovery tasks. Without all the free labor, business owners and residents who struggled to recover would have found the challenge that much harder — perhaps insurmountable.

But here’s thinking that there’s one thing that could have made a bravura performance even better: an earlier start. Imagine if a similar amount of human energy were deployed in the days leading up to the flood, rather than in the days after. Imagine the property damage that could have been mitigated if volunteers were helping business owners clear their basements on the Saturday and Sunday before waters rose Monday.

The ground was well saturated by frequent rains during the weeks leading up to July 10. The rivers were already swollen, and torrential rain had been in the forecast for Sunday night and Monday since Thursday. 

Montpelier should have a standing cadre of volunteers ready to get to work in such situations before — rather than after — disaster strikes. Such a group could meet, say, quarterly for training and information updates. Just to sweeten the pot, meetings could be tied to social events — winter carnivals and summer cookouts — as a way to build esprit de corps. 

On a pre-arranged signal in the face of impending disaster, members could report for duty. They could fan out to help folks clear out basements, knock on doors and urge that vehicles be moved to higher ground; tell residents to be ready to flee and aware of evacuation routes and locations to gather. Some could fill and deploy sandbags. When flooding is in the forecast, there are a host of things that can be done ahead of time to mitigate damage to property and risk of injury or death.

One key consideration is communication. If flooding is coincident with a loss of power or internet service — something which thankfully didn’t happen in the July disaster — email updates won’t be of much use and the same will be true of texts as phone batteries die. A few score volunteer door knockers could be crucial in such a scenario.

Another sort of advance planning would involve working with public safety agencies to ensure good coordination of preparation and response efforts. We wouldn’t want overzealous volunteers interfering with the work of police and fire departments; rather, the goal would be to enhance and expand on that work.

One anecdote in the August 8 Bridge story had St. Paul Street property owner Mary Boyce praising volunteers for their work hauling waterlogged possessions out of her building’s basements. One can only surmise that if that work had happened before, rather than after, the flood, it would have been easier because the items would not have been waterlogged.

As for how the standing volunteer corps should be organized, Montpelier Alive, the city, and the Montpelier Foundation did a great job getting organized after the flood. It would seem to make sense to call on them to organize ahead of the next one. 

Because the truth is, in this age of climate change, the next one is sure to come. When that happens, let’s be ready ahead of time.

Montpelier resident Dave Gram is a long-time Vermont-based journalist.

The material presented here represents the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of The Bridge. Commentaries may be submitted to editor@montpelierbridge.com. Preference is given to submissions by those who live in central Vermont. Submissions are encouraged to be 500 to 750 words in length.