Vermont lawmakers get firsthand look at flood damage ahead of next session

Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 5:33 PM EDT
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JOHNSON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are beginning to figure out how to prepare for the next big flood. Tuesday, a key committee got a firsthand look at the damage from July’s devastating floods and the price tag for the cleanup.

Their visit comes ahead of a legislative session where money for short-term recovery and long-term mitigation will be tight.

The Lamoille County town of Johnson is still recovering from flooding more than two months ago. The wastewater plant, which was underwater, is partially back up and running.

“There’s a temporary transfer switch, a temporary generator. All thousands of dollars a month,” Johnson Village Manager Erik Bailey said.

The health center down the street also took on several feet of water and is closed until further notice.

“The building was flooded up just over the windows. Everything inside was ruined,” said Geoff Butler, the executive director of the Johnson Health Center.

Homes were damaged, too. Rick Auperlee had waist-deep water on the first floor of his home on Railroad Street. He’s lived there for 34 years and is now faced with a difficult choice.

“Is it worth investing the time and the money in the property in staying here, or seriously look into the buyout program,” he said.

One street over, Johnson’s Sterling Market, post office and liquor store-- which all flooded before-- have plans to reopen.

Vermont House and Senate lawmakers surveyed the flood damage Tuesday to get a better sense of what flood victims will need when the Legislature convenes in January.

“We’re going to have to calculate on how much we’re spending on all of these disasters and think long term about where we want to make investments now as a state and federal government to be more resilient,” said Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden County.

Tropical Storm Irene’s cleanup and recovery cost around $700 million. Vermonters paid about $200 million of that with the rest coming from the federal government.

While the total cost from this year’s storm is still being tallied and it’s unclear how much the state can afford, recently lawmakers reallocated $20 million from broadband to business relief. And next year, with COVID cash already allocated, lawmakers predict difficult decisions ahead like whether to raise new revenues or cut back on other programs like broadband, housing, child care or others.

“Where we put that money and where we put the housing should be a question about how we move forward smart with housing and not make people make the choice of, ‘I’ve been flooded three times, should I move back into the same place?’” said Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille County.

That includes rethinking development patterns in and outside of our downtowns, loosening up Act 250 exemptions for projects outside of floodplains, and developing outside of downtowns and on higher ground.

But revisiting Act 250 or the proverbial third rail in Vermont politics may be easier said than done. The Senate committee says they will be meeting again next month and bringing in more experts, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, to begin long-term planning.