(HOST) In the wake of Hurricane Katrina we have heard a lot about the Mississippi Flood of April 1927 and the changes it brought. Commentator Vic Henningsen says that Vermont had its own flood story that year.
(HENNINGSEN) Columnist David Brooks recently argued that floods “wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done.” Vermont has had some experience with that.
Although not remotely as cataclysmic as the destruction of Katrina or the Mississippi floods of the same year, Vermont’s Great Flood of 1927 was the biggest natural disaster the state has experienced and it changed us significantly.
The most authoritative account of the disaster is found in the excellent work Freedom and Unity, by historians Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions, and Jeffrey Potash. Their story is well worth reading.
October rains were fifty percent higher than normal. Then, on November 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, seven to nine more inches of rain fell. The ground couldn’t absorb so much water and the runoff went downhill fast: at the storm’s height water levels in the valleys rose four feet an hour.
Eighty-four people died; almost ten thousand were left homeless; more than 1200 bridges were damaged or destroyed. Railroad track throughout the state was demolished.
Northern Vermont was almost completely cut off. To reach Montpelier from Burlington you had to travel by horse and on foot through Smuggler’s Notch and over Mount Hunger.
Although much of the local cleanup was handled by Vermonters working together, our historians point out that the state government’s response to the emergency brought significant changes.
For the first time, the state asked for federal assistance – and got it, from President Calvin Coolidge, a native Vermonter.
The legislature made flood recovery a state effort, rather than rebuilding town by town, thereby beginning a long process of undermining town power in state affairs.
Recovery focused on road repair and expansion of the state highway system, initiating the long decline of Vermont’s railroad network.
To meet unprecedented costs, the state abandoned its traditional pay-as-you-go approach to financing and borrowed money. This contributed to shifting the primary source of revenue from a statewide property tax to an income tax, introduced in 1931.
Finally, when John Weeks was re-elected governor in 1928 to continue to lead recovery, Vermont’s tradition of one-term governors ended.
A natural disaster not only tests a society’s ability to endure and recover, but forces it to change, to reshape itself, even though there’s no guarantee that what comes next is better. After the ’27 flood, many Vermonters didn’t like the so-called “improvements” that weakened a cherished tradition of localism. But nature didn’t give them much choice.
Katrina didn’t either.
Its victims are part of the largest population shift caused by a single event since World War II, and that’s only the beginning. It’s safe to say that there’ll be more going on in the storm’s aftermath than mere “recovery.”
This is Vic Henningsen in Thetford Center.
Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.