VT Flood Recovery

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(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 practice in that regard.

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 our 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 Sher- man, 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 could not 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 Mont- pelier from Burlington you had to travel by horse and on foot through Smuggler’s Notch and over Mount Hunger.

Much of the cleanup was handled locally, by Vermonters working together, with aid from the Red Cross and other volunteer groups, to clear the debris before the snow flew. But our historians point out that the state government’s response to this unprecedented 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 statewide 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, Vermont 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 tests not only a society’s ability to endure and recover, but its flexibility – its capacity to change and adapt, to reshape itself, even though there’s no guarantee that what comes next is better. After the ’27 flood, many Vermonters didn’t like so-called “improvements” that threatened 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.

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