As floodwaters began to ebb on Tuesday, and Vermonters reckoned with the devastation of a record-breaking storm, shock mixed with a growing sense of dread at the long recovery ahead — and with a lingering uneasiness that more losses might yet be uncovered.
As residents began to sift through ruined businesses, and hundreds of people sought temporary housing away from flooded homes, calls for search and rescue missions continued up and down the state, fueling an anxious, unsettled mood.
“It was an apocalyptic feeling,” said Dylan Woodrow, 29, of Montpelier, who paddled his kayak through more than three feet of water there on Tuesday, asking people stranded in second-floor apartments if they needed help.
Throughout the day, warnings that the nearby Wrightsville Dam might reach capacity, and require the release of more water, kept Mr. Woodrow and other residents of Montpelier, the state capitol, on edge. Reported to be six feet below the dam’s capacity in the early morning, the water had crept to one foot below by afternoon, the Vermont Department of Emergency Management said in a statement.
Heavy flooding on Main Street in Montpelier on Tuesday.Credit…Richard Beaven for The New York Times
Jennifer Morrison, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Safety, said some areas were still too dangerous to reach by boat on Tuesday, and helicopters had been used for some rescues. She urged people to continue to avoid flooded areas. “Do not take any chances,” she said at a news conference.
No injuries or deaths had been reported by midday Tuesday, but state leaders stressed the continuing danger. “I want to reiterate that we are still in the earliest stages of this disaster,” Ms. Morrison said.
Gov. Phil Scott called the flooding “historic and catastrophic,” warning at the news conference, “This is nowhere near over.”
The two-day storm dumped more than eight inches of rain on some parts of Vermont. The storm also swamped some areas in New York State, where, in the course of just 24 hours on Sunday, more than twice as much rain fell than is typical for the entire month of July, according to the National Weather Service. A 43-year-old woman died in flash flooding in New York on Sunday while trying to rescue her father’s dog.
Vermont’s Winooski River, which runs through Montpelier, crested at 21 feet early on Tuesday, exceeding by two feet its highest level during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 but falling short of the record set in the 1920s. Irene killed more than 40 people as it swept up the East Coast, including six in Vermont.
Lessons learned then helped inform a more proactive response in many Vermont towns during this week’s storm, police and fire chiefs said, as they preemptively evacuated residents from low-lying areas, efforts that may have helped prevent fatalities.
Rescue teams from more than a half-dozen other states brought fresh personnel and equipment into central Vermont on Monday and Tuesday, but for small volunteer fire departments, the sustained effort was a strain. Deputy Chief Matthew Romei of the Berlin Fire Department said some of his department members had worked 28 hours without a break. He credited them for responding to a mudslide that covered a roadway in Barre and to roads where sinkholes had opened, causing chunks of pavement to disappear.
“They have to get rest and recovery,” he said, “or they can’t continue.”
Interstate 89 reopened Tuesday morning, after a portion was closed in both directions overnight, stranding dozens of drivers who had found themselves marooned on access ramps or at rest stops. Many smaller roads remained closed, however, adding to residents’ worries.
“We’re safe, but we’re also pretty much stuck here,” Steve Sease, 76, of Montpelier said. “There’s no way for us to get anywhere of importance. How would we get to the hospital if someone got hurt?”
Others, like Kayla Chartier, 34, wondered how long power outages and bus route cancellations might last. Ms. Chartier, who lives in a second-floor apartment on Montpelier’s flooded Main Street, said that she waded through waist-deep water Monday night to find a place to charge her phone, and that she tripped and fell in the dark. On Tuesday, she was unable to refill needed prescriptions, with no car of her own and no buses running.
“I’m feeling a little hopeless,” she said.
Many business owners who waited impatiently to regain access to their stores on Tuesday soon found their worst fears realized. Bob Nelson, who owns a 40-year-old hardware store in downtown Barre estimated that he had lost about $300,000 worth of inventory in the store’s flooded basement, which his insurance does not cover. He said the flooding was worse than after Tropical Storm Irene. “In 2011, we had almost four feet of water in the basement,” he said. “We didn’t have nine feet like we have now.”
President Biden declared a state of emergency for Vermont early on Tuesday, unlocking federal resources and disaster assistance.
The devastation in Montpelier shut down the city at the peak of the city’s summer tourist season, when visitors normally flock to its mountains, lakes and picturesque downtown. As residents contemplated the weeks and months of work ahead to recover and rebuild, some said they also feared that the damage might keep visitors away long after Main Street and its cafes and galleries reopen.
Still, some in the city of about 8,000 found solace in small gestures of support. Claire Benedict, co-owner of Bear Pond Books in downtown Montpelier, said she had received more than 50 text messages from concerned customers and friends offering to pitch in and assist with cleaning up the store, pledging their support when it reopens.
“This is obviously devastating for downtown,” Ms. Benedict said, “but we’re not worried about having help.”
Reporting was contributed by Anna Betts, Daniel Victor, Hilary Swift, Richard Beaven, Erin Nolan, Rebecca Carballo, Judson Jones and Siobhan Neela-Stock.