The basement of yore was a uniquely utilitarian space. Like its sibling, the attic, the basement afforded property owners storage space for the supplies and detritus of daily life, its cobwebs and clutter tastefully removed from daily experience.
Even more important was its service as the domicile of mechanical equipment that was too loud, too large, and too unsightly to share space in the more refined quarters where humans lived, or in stores where patrons browsed in spaces designed to make them comfortable. Furnaces and boilers, oil tanks, water heaters, freezers, pipes, cables, electrical panels, and the like clashed with our instinct to separate the aesthetic aspects of our lives from the utilitarian. No need to worry about that, for there was always the basement.
Unfortunately, “yore” (for basements) came to a halt in central Vermont on July 10, 2023, when our environment stopped cooperating. Floods wiped out great swaths of Montpelier and Barre, with near-catastrophic damage also in the communities and rural areas around them.
This was getting old. There was the Montpelier flood of 1992, the Memorial Weekend flood of 2011, and Tropical Storm Irene three months later, which triggered comparisons to the legendary flood of 1927. Less notorious but locally traumatic events such as the 1973 and 1995 floods that wrecked parts of Hardwick and nearby areas have also contributed to a growing awareness that, while trying to heal our environment, we’re either going to have to move to higher ground or make our infrastructure more resilient.
And so the basement’s days are numbered. By regulation in some places, by evolving sensibilities in others, and at different paces withal, the basement’s chief utilitarian contribution will be to hold our houses and buildings up.
Increasingly its mechanical denizens will begin to live upstairs. With us.
That said, for the foreseeable future Scott Cameron’s oil furnace will remain in the basement below Yankee Wine and Spirits in Montpelier, where it heats that retail space and four apartments on the building’s second and third floors.
“It would have been nice to get that whole thing out of there and elevate it above flood level,” says Cameron of the bulky device that also heated water for the entire building. “But we didn’t have any room to do that.”
Cameron and his wife, Cathleen, own the 126 Main Street building through a limited liability corporation (LLC); he owns the store with his son, Brent Marcellus.
“Like many other businesses downtown we were destroyed by the flood,” he says. The electricity was wiped out, too, the inventory destroyed, the walls and floors saturated.
“Basically, it was a total loss.”
His tenants, whom he praises for their patience and understanding, had to find temporary quarters elsewhere.
The ensuing weeks were consumed by exploring alternatives the owners never imagined they’d have to consider. Yet they did so within a structure: Montpelier’s River Hazard Area Regulations, adopted in 2018 and amended in 2022, seek to gradually make the city more harmonious with the rivers that course through and around it, and to protect the community from their worst ravages.
After July 10 one provision became particularly relevant. As Audra Brown, a certified facility manager with Montpelier’s Department of Planning and Community Development, explains, “We have been enforcing the requirement to elevate utilities to a Design Flood Elevation (DFE) that is two feet above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) all along.”
Never before, however, had there been such urgency. Property owners needed to know which “utilities” must be elevated to that height and which could remain where they were. The accepted translation was that new equipment must meet the DFE specifications and move up in the world. Repairs — even extensive ones — could remain where they were.
Devoid of a feasible alternative, and with the city’s approval, Cameron and his team rebuilt the furnace in the basement — a project nearly as extensive as installing a new one. They did, however, elevate the pipes, extend them outside, and anchor the oil tank firmly to the floor.
“We did what we could,” he says. “But if our basement flooded we’d lose the furnace again.”
However, there’s a silver lining. Cameron needed a quicker solution for restoring hot water for his tenants, since rebuilding the furnace would (and did) take months.
“So I purchased an 80-gallon hybrid electric hot water heater. It’s a heat pump that heats water by drawing the heat from the ambient air. It also has an electric component, but it doesn’t use that unless it has to, so it saves a lot on electricity. It creates hot water and it dehumidifies at the same time.”
Because this was new equipment, Montpelier’s River Hazard regulations mandated that it be installed above flood elevation. Cameron had to sacrifice some commercial footage within Yankee Wine and Spirits. “That was the only option. No place on the second or third floors would have worked.”
The hybrid water heater now sits within a closet, with louvered doors to allow for air circulation. When the store reopens (with no promises, Cameron is shooting for late November), customers will find it near the walk-in cooler. They’re unlikely to hear it, though; it operates near silently in its little cave.)
Flood recovery, for Cameron and his partners, has been dauntingly expensive — he projects that total costs will exceed $300,000 — but they’ve received financial assistance from several sources. The water heater qualified for a $600 rebate from Efficiency Vermont, and Cameron is hopeful of receiving another $1,000 from them because the purchase was necessitated by an official disaster. The beverage store and the LLC each qualified for $4,000, and then $20,000 grants from Montpelier Alive (possibly with an additional amount coming); they have also received support from the Business Emergency Gap Assistance Program (BEGAP), designed by Vermont’s Department of Economic Development to provide up to 30% of uncovered damage costs to flood-impacted businesses.
Without such assistance, Cameron says, “We might have fixed the building but we wouldn’t be able to reopen the store.”
And that’s the goal. “The community has been tremendous, and we’re working hard to make a comeback because we know that’s the best thing we can do to contribute to the community.”
Tess Taylor was in her basement, hurriedly packing things into her backpack and removing things she hoped to protect, when a voice called from outside, saying, “Ma’am, you have thirty seconds to evacuate this apartment.”
It was July 10, and it had already been a hectic day. She had left her home on Granite Street in Barre that morning for a quick trip to her office in Montpelier where she administers an ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) program. But that was just to pick up some files and paperwork and head home again. It was pouring rain, and she’d seen this act before. On Memorial Day weekend in 2011 her neighborhood suffered severe flooding, and although her three-apartment duplex had escaped the worst of it, she knew how bad things could get. So she advised her tenant in the adjoining apartment (the apartment above them happened to be empty) that they’d better get their cars up to the BOR — Barre’s civic and recreational center on Auditorium Hill — before the flooding hit. They had done that, then walked home, and were rummaging hurriedly through their basements when the announcement came. The city had sent a bucket loader to imperiled neighborhoods, and it was waiting for them.
“I go outside and there it is, laid perfectly on my porch. So me and my dog, we get in, and my tenant and her two cats, and another neighbor, and the bucket loader took us to Main Street.” From there it was a watery walk back to the BOR, while the bucket loader went to rescue more residents.
Taylor returned to her house the next day.
“Oh my god. When I saw what I was going to be looking at [for restoration] … you have to take a deep breath.”
She now realizes she had it better than many people. With the elevated porch the floodwaters had not reached her first floor. The basement, though, was inundated to within a few inches of the ceiling. Her Buderus boiler, her hot water tank, her electrical panels, her washer and dryer, and personal belongings, were all underwater.
Plus, her 250-gallon oil tank, which had just been topped off the previous week, had tipped over, spilling oil into the floodwaters. Because her house is a duplex, a wall separates the two sides of the basement, and that kept the oil mostly on one side (“unfortunately,” Taylor says, “my tenant’s side”). And quick action by a neighboring company, Absolute Spill Response, saved the day.
Taylor has spent her years in Barre deeply involved and committed to community causes. Among other public-facing jobs she was an early director of Studio Place Arts, and of the Vermont Granite Museum. She served on, and chaired, the school board. She represented Barre City for six years in the state Legislature. She sings in the Rock City Chorus.
On the Saturday after the flood, the good will she had sown reaped benefits. Some 30 friends and volunteers showed up to help empty the mud and debris from her cellar. Among them were State Treasurer Mike Pieciak and Barre’s mayor, Jake Hemmerick.
Yet after the work was done, she confronted a new question: Now what?
Neither she nor her tenant moved back in. There was no heat, no electricity, no hot water. (Taylor has been staying at the rectory of her church, the Church of the Good Shepherd.) But one thing was crystal clear: she wasn’t going to buy new equipment and put it back in the basement.
“I am never going to go through this again!” she says vehemently.
Yet Taylor’s duplex is a modest wood-frame building, vintage 1880. True to the era, there are no closets, pantries, cubbies, nor storage areas. She considered heat pumps, but she would need one for each apartment, which was unaffordable. Nor is the house insulated enough to justify the investment.
Then one morning, she woke up with a vision.
“We’re just going to build a new room!” she told herself. “If I have to put it on piers outside, that’s how I’ll do it.”
The image began to clarify. It would be attached to her tenant’s back porch, close to the necessary connections. “We’ll have a door so that we’ll step from the porch into the room, and we’ll put in a new propane boiler because there are highly efficient ones now, and we’ll have an electrical panel on the wall to operate it.”
The tank for the boiler could be positioned on the ground close by. The individual panels for each apartment’s electricity, no longer safe in the basement, also would move there — although Taylor was later advised that for code requirements they needed to go into the apartments instead.
The water heater? Hmmmm…. A solution was less obvious, so Taylor decided that for now it could stay in the basement. It’s less vulnerable to permanent damage, and unlike the oil tank, it hadn’t tipped over in the flood. It would now be fueled by propane instead of oil.
Taylor began reaching out to electricians, builders, plumbers, heating technicians — “You sort of become your own little general contractor!” — and the pieces fell into place. Work began on the new addition in late October. Taylor anticipates that she and her tenant will be able to move back by mid-November.
Among the many lessons this equilibrium-shattering experience has provided, two stand out for her. One is that the systems supposedly designed to make people whole after they’ve endured a disaster like a flood (Taylor did have flood insurance) are conceptually outmoded.
“They’ll assess your damage and pay you apples to apples. Well, there’s a big orange happening here, and it’s called mitigation. And mitigation makes sense because this is for the future. But flood insurance and FEMA don’t pay for it; they’re about now. I think that needs to change.”
Her other lesson, like Scott Cameron’s, is the extraordinary value of community. It manifests in institutional resources such as Efficiency Vermont and the state’s BEGAP program (Taylor is exploring both for financial assistance); in localized programs that spring up spontaneously in times of need, such as the Barre Community Relief Fund, which has contributed $5,000 to flood-affected businesses (Taylor qualified, as a landlord) and $1,500 to individuals; and the Rock City Chorus, which staged a community fundraising concert that netted $4,444.
Most emphatically, it manifested for Tess Taylor in the personal support that has helped her weather the entire ordeal.
“I can’t say enough about how that feels, my gratitude, my wonder,” she says. “The human spirit and generosity and giving. That’s just been crazy wonderful.”