Flood watch issued as Montpelier prepares

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(Host) Warm temperatures and rain have heightened concerns about flooding along the Winooski River in Montpelier.

The Weather Service issued a flood watch today for northern Vermont and upstate New York.

The concern is that the steady rain could raise the river level. That could break up the ice, cause and an ice jam and lead to flooding.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Montpelier is on flood alert. Sandbags have piled up in front of store windows on downtown streets. Over at the city’s public works department, the National Guard was lending a hand stuffing the heavy bags.

(Guard member) “Sir, you kind of roll the top of the bag down like this.”
(Douglas) “Okay.”
(Guard member) “And there’s kind of a lip.”
(Douglas) “All right.”
(Guard member) “Step on this brake pedal right there.”
(Douglas) “Okay.”
(Guard member) “And it falls right in.”

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas got a quick lesson on the sandbag machine.

(Douglas) “I saw that piece on television the other night where residents in Montpelier were filling sandbags and it looked like it took about an hour to fill each one. So someone said you know I think the Guard could play a key role in getting more bags down faster. And so we put in a call to headquarters, and within in a very short time, here you are. I appreciate it very much.”

(The sound of trucks moving)

(Dillon) A steady rain fell as about 20 Guard members packed the bags and moved their gear into place. The machinery includes huge, 10-wheel drive huge trucks to move people and equipment around in case of high water.

Colonel Chris Bishop said the Guard had more volunteers than slots available for work.

(Bishop) “We polled everybody when they arrived yesterday morning and they’re from virtually every community throughout the state. And the Guard has units all over the state. And almost every armory in the state – we have people here on the ground. It’s a great collection of Vermonters here to support other Vermonters in their time of need.”

(Dillon) The Guard was here in 1992 as well, when the city had no warning before an ice jam sent the Winooski River flowing down city streets. Fifteen years later, officials are ready. Governor Douglas:

(Douglas) “So now, with sensors in the river to measure the rise in the water level and anticipation based on experience, we can be prepared. So we’ve devoted all our resources, from our Emergency Management unit, to the Vermont State Police, the National Guard with their sandbagging operations, and the local officials who are also making their preparations.”

(Dillon) Of course, everyone hopes that all the preparations will not be needed. The Weather Service flood watch means the river could rise, but it’s not in an immediate danger of doing so.

And the efforts to prevent a flood appear to be making a difference. Since last week, the city has pumped warmer water into the stream. And work crews have also spread dark sand and mulch onto the frozen river to get the sun to melt the water.

City manager Bill Fraser says the Winooski has opened up in places.

(Fraser) “We certainly have been going in the correct direction. We’re seeing a lot more open water, evidence of melt and those kinds of things. We’re encouraged by nature and what some of our efforts have brought about. And we think we we’ll make it through the next 24 hours. But looking at the weather forecast, this is the riskiest time, right now.”

(Dillon) Governor Douglas says Montpelier is not the only community at risk. He says officials are keeping an eye on ice-jammed rivers throughout the state that could break up and cause flooding.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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