Loss of grocery store leaves Johnson-area residents in limbo

Published: Aug. 2, 2023 at 6:34 PM EDT
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JOHNSON, Vt. (WCAX) - When the Lamoille River jumped its banks in Johnson last month, it once again flooded the area’s only grocery store, forcing locals to go the extra mile to meet basic needs and creating somewhat of a food desert in the area.

Going on four weeks after the flooding and Johnson is still trying to adjust to a new normal. Next to the empty Sterling Market is a mobile post office so locals can still receive and send mail.

“They’re getting letters from FEMA, the Red Cross, from insurance companies -- all of that is in one location now and they don’t have to go back and forth,” said Johnson postmaster Jane Draper.

The Sterling Market took on seven feet of water. It now sits empty, its aisles gutted. The Pomerleau family, the market’s owners, made investments in flood mitigation a decade ago. Now, after the latest flood they say the store will remain closed for the foreseeable future.

“A lot of people in town rely on Johnson for most of their resources,” said Belvidere Town Clerk Cathy Mander-Adams. For many years she says Belvidere had its own general store and gas station, but after the owner died about a decade ago, people had to find options elsewhere. There’s a small market in Waterville, but Mander-Adams say most people go to Johnson for food, the post office, banking, auto repair and more. “We were just getting comfortable until we’ve lost everything again. So, we have to travel.”

Some lost cars in the flooding and some seniors and people with disabilities have faced challenges seeking dialysis and other critical medical needs.

“If you think about all the things that you need to recover, there are huge gaps between individuals and those tools,” said Caleb Grant with Rural Community Transportation, a nonprofit transportation agency serving the Northeast Kingdom. He says they have expanded services and are now bringing people from Johnson to Morrisville. He says transportation is the key when it comes to everything from childcare to health care to nutrition.

Reporter Calvin Cutler: How long can you sustain this for?

Caleb Grant: That’s the question. We don’t operate for free -- it’s not free to buy gas and brakes. These are tangible costs that are not absorbed through the goodness of our hearts.

He adds they have been working with the state and have been able to be flexible with funding to serve Vermonters to get from here to there.

It’s still unclear when or if Sterling Market will reopen and some in town are making long-term plans of how to meet basic needs.

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