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Montpelier’s Mud Angels

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Pile of debris on Main Street with woman watering a flowering pot hanging from a lamp post.
Photo by John Lazenby
Years ago, my mom told me about the time she spent studying art in Florence, Italy. She recounted the 1966 flood, and how she and her friends dug out the local shops and saved their local bookstore. She then moved to the Alps for the next year, for respite and relief. She passed away in 2016, but I thought of her often while we were digging out our own town.

When I recently searched for images of the 1966 flood in Florence, I found many photos that reminded me of our experience here in Montpelier. I also learned about ‘the Mud Angels’ or ‘gli angeli del fango.’ I am sure my mother was one.

“The Mud Angels worked tirelessly, inspired by hope and a willingness to make a difference. Most were never paid for their efforts and many slept in boxcars in the train yard of Santa Maria Novella. During the day they swept debris from the streets or worked passing hand over hand soggy books and manuscripts from the Biblioteca Nazionale’s basement. Others were given the assignment of smearing walls with caustic solvents to pull the oils from the surfaces of ancient buildings. Still, others helped in the city’s hospital or assisted local merchants to clean out their shops” (from Melissa Muldoon, in her blog “The Art of Loving Italy,” artlovingitaly.com/mud-angels-florence-flood-1966-save-art).

This scene could have very much been our own town on July 11, 2023, when our streets became full with volunteers who were determined to save our town. On the morning of July 11, while waiting for the waters to recede before helping to set up the Volunteer Hub, I biked downtown to see the damage. The smell of fuel and river sludge wafted through the air. My lungs knew it was toxic and I made my way back to my house. It was then that I realized the magnitude of the event and although I had no idea what truly lay before us, I understood it was going to be an extremely difficult journey ahead. 

Our team set to work developing the systems for the Volunteer Hub. It didn’t take long for people to catch on, and they began trickling in to be assigned to locations across the town where they could help. 

The Montpelier Youth Conservation crew set to work hauling mud and inventory from basements and canvassing the town. Nobody had energy like them. Business owners put their shoulders to the wheel and did whatever they had to do to get their equipment and inventory out, while managing staff, filing insurance claims, finding legal help, and holding themselves together while watching their entire livelihoods disappear. Food seemed to appear out of nowhere, but only because Lalitha Mailwaganam swooped in at just the right moment.

Every day was unpredictable, one day I was hauling equipment and moving supplies, and the next day I was scraping up every funding resource I could find to support the downtown.

Each day seemed to last forever, and at night when I hit my pillow, I couldn’t sleep. My ears were ringing with task lists and replays of moments throughout the day, wondering if I had made the right choices or shared correct news and resources. What if FEMA actually could help businesses; what if inventory had to be photographed; who could I turn to for valid information; why is my phone quiet, because it certainly had been ringing off the hook all day … something must be wrong! Water infiltrated my dreams too, or was I just remembering what it felt like to watch the North Branch break its banks onto my lawn? 

Soon it became clear that this was a long-game, and nothing was going to be ‘normal’ anytime soon. I sent my family away on their planned vacation, and I hung back knowing there was no way I could show up for them at this moment. I am grateful they understood and allowed the space that was necessary to keep up the rigorous pace.

In those days and weeks that followed there was no looking up, there was no going back, just forward with the momentum gathered from the community spirit that drove us in a unified direction. One evening I was biking home at dusk, noticing all the empty buildings, and the eight-feet-high trash piles lining the streets. Everything looked dark gray, like a black-and-white photograph. Just days before, the town was bustling with people, color, and the warm scent of fresh Thai food. The next day, it was all gone. Literally empty, there was nothing left. I stopped and got off my bike, and noticed movement in one of the shops. People were still cleaning. In fact, as I looked more closely, there were many people still working at this late hour, like shadows quietly moving in the dark. In my mind, I overlaid the hundreds of volunteers who were downtown during the day, and suddenly our town came back to life. I realized that we hadn’t actually lost everything, our community was still here. We were very much alive, and nothing could wash that spirit away. I slept well that night for the first time in a long while.

We have our own Mud Angels here in Montpelier. And angels don’t just go away. That collective spirit will live here forever. We will always remember those who showed up, and the strength of our community that helped us to come together to save our town. And that’s the key to our future. That’s the thing that keeps us here. 

Katie Trautz is the executive director of Montpelier’s downtown business organization, Montpelier Alive. 

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