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How Vermont Learned Its Climate Lesson the Hard Way

The floods that hit the state this week were intense—but spending after Hurricane Irene helped to keep a total catastrophe at bay.

People kayak down a flooded city street; wooded mountains rise up in the background.
John Tully/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Flooding in downtown Montpelier, Vermont on Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Days of wet weather had already saturated the ground when nine inches of rain inundated Vermont’s Green Mountains on Monday, sending sheets of water into valley towns.

A number of the state’s nineteenth-century downtowns—Ludlow, Weston, Barre, Waterbury, Johnson, Richmond, Jeffersonville, and Cambridge—were awash in three to eight feet of standing water, ruining hundreds of buildings. Part of Montpelier, the state capital, was evacuated when a nearby dam nearly reached overflow capacity.

Swift boat teams made 200 emergency rescues in four regions of the state. One person was clinging to a treetop; a woman was pulled out of a second story window; another woman was pulled out of a vehicle swept up in rushing water.

No one has died in the flood. “We’re living on luck right now,” said Mike Cannon, who manages search and rescue teams for the Vermont Department of Public Safety.

But more than luck was at work. Unlike past catastrophic floods in Vermont, this time, the state was prepared.

Vermont Governor Phil Scott described the magnitude of the Flood of 2023 and the damage it has caused as “historic.” This week’s rains have surpassed the most recent once-in-a-lifetime event, Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, which dumped nine to 11 inches of rain on the Green Mountains in 12 hours. The flooding in Irene, which was concentrated in the south central area of the state, killed seven people, damaged 500 miles of roadway and 200 bridges, and destroyed nearly $750 million in property, including the state office complex in Waterbury.

It’s difficult to compare the two natural disasters, said Jennifer Morrison, the state’s chief officer of public safety, but rivers were significantly higher and flooding was more widespread this week than in 2011.

And yet, the state’s infrastructure appears to be largely intact. Officials with VTrans, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, are in the process of assessing the damage, but as of yesterday, there were 29 road closures, down from 78 on Tuesday as in just 24 hours VTrans made temporary fixes to state highways. Nine bridges were washed out—just 5 percent of the number impacted by Irene. A new state office building built in 2014 was surrounded by floodwater, but the facility was high and dry.

So why were the outcomes better with a storm that was demonstrably worse?

On Sunday, Scott declared a state of emergency in advance of the storm. That decision enabled the Vermont Department of Public Safety to position state and local search and rescue operations in trouble spots ahead of time.

Crucially, after Irene, Vermont put systems and infrastructure in place to make the state more resilient to flooding. In 2011, the state didn’t have an incident command system and wasn’t on the ground before the storm hit, according to Sue Minter, a former secretary of VTrans. The state’s transportation infrastructure was also antiquated, meaning that a comparatively smaller amount of rain was able to do much more damage.

The searing experience of Irene drove the state, in consultation with riparian experts and transportation engineers, to rebuild with flood-resilient infrastructure such as bigger box culverts, more robust bridges, and riverbank restoration. The U.S. EPA has found that extreme rainfall in the Northeast U.S. has increased by 70 percent since the 1950s, and that more climate change–charged weather events like Irene are in the state’s near future. So Vermont took the drastic step of permanently removing 100 homes from flood-prone areas. Where possible, towns allowed rivers and streams to take their course naturally.

The total cost of the roadway damage was initially estimated at $250 million to $300 million. The amount ultimately spent was $750 million in state and federal dollars. At first, the Federal Emergency Management Agency refused to foot the bill, Minter said, thanks to certain provisions that stipulated how the government rebuilt building and infrastructure following disasters. But the state appealed and eventually won.

On Wednesday, during a press conference with state officials, FEMA Administrator Deanne Crisswell told Vermont reporters that the agency now sees climate change as a factor. “We need to better understand what it’s going to look like 10, 20 years from now so we can use our mitigation dollars to help reduce impacts,” she said. (Ironically, the state only four months ago closed out its last FEMA filing for Irene.)

In his comments to reporters on Wednesday, Governor Scott, who hiked about a half mile on a snowmobile trail to get work Tuesday because his road was impassable, focused on potential dangers ahead. The National Weather Service has forecast possibly several more inches of rain over the next few days, which could cause more mudslides (there have been a dozen so far) and other damage. Catastrophic flooding could happen again, he said, anytime.

“As we’ve seen over the last year, you never know what you’re going to get,” Scott said. “I mean, they can try and predict to the best of their ability. But I wouldn’t say we knew we were going to get seven to nine inches in this past storm.”

What is predictable is Vermont’s nonpolitical response. Scott, a straight-shooting moderate Republican, is well-respected and well-liked by his more liberal political counterparts, including progressive iconoclast Senator Bernie Sanders and the two Democratic members of the congressional delegation. He’s no climate savior—he’s opposed measures that would fund adoption of heat pumps in the state—but has encouraged investments in E.V. charging and electric buses. And the early feedback on his administration’s response to these floods has been excellent. Even Minter, his former 2016 gubernatorial rival, is unstinting in her praise of the governor’s response to the disaster. “He’s a good decision-maker,” she said.

Scott said he was “inspired” by the way Vermonters were helping each other dig out from the sludge left behind by the flooding. The state is marshaling thousands of volunteers to assist people who’ve lost their homes and businesses.

Climate change has buffeted Vermont again, but the neighborly people here abide and will be ready for the next one. The state has surpassed political partisanship by recognizing that investing in climate resilience will be crucial to helping people survive increasingly intense weather events like these floods. More at-risk states could do well to learn from Vermont’s example.