With flood damage to property ‘unavoidable,’ Vt. officials focus on saving lives

By: - July 10, 2023 2:17 pm

Water from the Mill River floods across Route 103 in Cuttingsville on Monday, July 10, 2023. (Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger)

Standing at a podium Monday morning in Vermont’s Emergency Operations Center in Waterbury, Gov. Phil Scott appeared solemn as the day’s catastrophic flooding brought back memories of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Except this storm, he said, could be even worse.

Heavy rain inundates Vermont, causing flash floods and requiring rescues

“What’s different for me is that Irene lasted about 24 hours,” Scott told reporters as he and fellow officials briefed reporters on the state’s response. “It was raining one day… We woke up and the sun was shining, and we went out to look at the damage and we were able to get to work immediately.

Even still, Vermont’s recovery from Irene took years. The state Agency of Transportation only just completed its final Irene-related bridge repair project this past year, Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn told reporters at the press conference.

This week’s storm is different. It is forecasted to continue at least through Tuesday, rendering cleanup impossible in the near term and complicating search and rescue teams’ efforts as they attempt to save vulnerable Vermonters.

“We’re getting just as much rain, if not more, and it’s going on for days,” Scott said. “That’s my concern. It’s not just the initial damage. It’s the wave, the second wave and the third wave, and we’re trying to anticipate that as we work.”

Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety Daniel Batsie told reporters Monday morning that the state’s immediate focus was on saving lives. Property and infrastructure repairs would come later, he said, after the rain has ceased.

“We know that the damage to property and infrastructure is now unavoidable, but we can save lives,” Batsie said.

Drivers cross water flowing across Route 100 between Hancock and Rochester on Monday, July 10, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Scott on Sunday declared a state of emergency, thereby activating the state’s Emergency Operations Center and National Guard. Already, he said, he anticipates that damages to the state would exceed the threshold to request a federal emergency declaration, which could help secure federal funding to help recovery efforts.

“We’re doing the paperwork as we speak,” Scott said. He also spoke Monday morning with Federal Emergency Management Agency director Deanne Criswell, he said, and his office has notified the White House of the situation.

Mike Cannon, the state’s urban search and rescue program coordinator, said that 14 swift water rescue teams were operating throughout Vermont, with more set to arrive from other states imminently. The teams were helping Vermonters and their pets evacuate their homes. Cannon said rescuers were prepared to drop off food and supplies to those unable or unwilling to leave.

“It’s always, in my world, the vulnerable people that don’t want to leave their homes,” Cannon said. “Either they’ve lived there all their life, they’re elderly, they might have some medical health issues, or they might not have the money to go to a hotel.”

The communities hardest hit by the storm, located along the spine of the Green Mountains, are also the most difficult for search and rescue teams to navigate, Cannon said.

Around 7:30 a.m. Monday, swiftwater rescue teams received one unconfirmed report of a flood-related fatality in Londonderry, Cannon said. Two swiftwater rescue teams were in the town at the time of the report and were not immediately able to confirm it, he said.

Officials urged Vermonters in need to dial 211 if they need financial assistance, such as for a hotel or for extra doses of medication, and 911 if they’re in an emergency situation. Scott urged those experiencing homelessness also to call 211 for assistance.

Some Vermonters may rely on life-saving medication such as insulin, which needs to be refrigerated. Clean drinking water infrastructure may fail, though no such incidents were reported as of Monday morning, according to Scott. Countless roads were impassable. Farm fields were flooded.

“The challenges of this kind of a situation are somewhat immeasurable,” Batsie said. “There’s always going to be the element that we haven’t thought of yet.”

Scott urged Vermonters to assist neighbors in need, as many did in the aftermath of Irene — helping one another access shelter, food, medication and necessities. As for Vermonters who want to take matters into their own hands to help their neighbors — he pointed to communities such as Northfield, which is organizing its own volunteer water rescues — Cannon said, “Heed the warnings and the recommendations from state and local officials.”

“If they tell you to evacuate or they’ve asked you to evacuate, you should take those warnings and do that,” he said.

This story was originally published in VTDigger and is republished here through a partnership with States Newsroom.


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