Montpelier officials prepare for possible flooding

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(Host) Residents of Vermont’s capital city are hoping history does not repeat itself.

Fifteen years ago, an ice jam on the Winooski River flooded Montpelier, causing millions of dollars in damage.

Ice again blocks the river. And if the weather warms suddenly, the flood danger is high. City officials are preparing for the worst.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Fireman) “We have been evacuating pretty much since the river started rising, people out of the buildings, first downtown and then we’ve been helping them out of buildings where they were trapped here along State Street “

(Dillon) In 1992, a fireman on a flooded Montpelier street briefed a TV news crew. Rains and warm weather had swollen the Winooski River, and – suddenly — an ice jam formed west of downtown.

(City Manager, Bill Fraser) “In ’92, we had 15 minutes warning.”

(Dillon) Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser says the city is better prepared this time.

(Fraser) “If there’s any bright light to any of this, it’s that we have an opportunity to get everybody, including emergency responders coordinated and prepared.”

(Dillon) Businesses in the flood-prone downtown are getting ready. Andrea Serota is co-owner of the Savoy Theater and Downstairs Video. She’s lived through this before.

(Serota) “We were up to the ceiling joists for close to 24 hours.”

(Dillon) In ’92, as the flood waters rose, a legion of volunteers hustled all the videos out of the basement room. They got everything but the cardboard video jackets. Those were dried out later. Serota still finds traces of river silt in some of the older ones.

Volunteers will help if there’s a flood this time as well.

(Serota) “We developed a phone tree that now has about 50 names on it, people who are willing to be called day or night to come down. We have trash bags. And we could empty what’s in here in less than an hour with enough people.”

(Dillon) Everyone is worried about a flood, but no one can say if it will happen, when it will happen or where. That’s because the conditions that caused the flood in 92 and may cause one now are very different.

Fifteen years ago, the ice sheets on the river broke up and formed a dam, which flooded the city.

This year, because of extremely cold temperatures in January, the river is frozen almost solid for three-quarters of a mile. So the ice jam, if it happens, could happen in many different locations. Bill Fraser:

(Fraser) “This could happen in a completely different place. This could happen right here in the center of downtown. So that means that some areas that were hit very badly won’t be touched at all. And other areas that had no problems in 92 could bear the brunt of it. People are asking what evacuation routes are, what our response plans are, and we said we don’t even know what roads will be passable. Not only do we not know when it’s likely going to happen, we can’t even predict a likely location.”

(Dillon) At Riverwalk Record on State Street, owner Jacob Grossi is holding a pre flood sale for everything that’s stocked below waist level. He questions if city officials could be doing more to prevent a possible flood.

(Grossi) “I think that the general feeling in town is something else could be done. It is an act of God, yes, but we know it’s coming, we know it’s coming for a month. It seems like there’s got to be some piece of heavy equipment that could break up that ice jam and get at least a little bit bigger channel going.”

(Sounds of a crane)

(Dillon) They’re trying. A giant crane drops a steel I-beam on the thick ice outside of town. Ice floes, several feet thick begin to break up. But much of the river remains frozen solid.

City manager Bill Fraser has heard the complaints.

(Fraser) “I get asked 25 times a day why don’t you just do something. Believe me if there was one single thing we could do, it would have been done in January.”

(Dillon) Fraser says they’re doing what they can. Crews have spread a dark mixture of sand and mulch on the river in an effort to use the warmth of the sun to speed up the melting.

They’re also pumping warmer water from the sewage treatment plant into the stream. The problem is that there’s just too much ice over too much river. The best solution would be mild days and cold nights – weather that’s perfect for slow melting and maple sugaring weather.

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

Related Links

Montpelier Flood Watch: Public Flood Monitoring Web Page

Montpelier Flood Watch: Flooding & How To Avoid Losses in Montpelier

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