First ‘Epic’ Vermont Flood Brought Change; Will Irene?

February 8, 2012

Twice in less than a century, Waterbury’s 1827 Congregational Church, at the crest of a small rise on Main Street, has played a critical role in helping the community escape the ravages of the rising Winooski River and recover after epic floodwaters have receded.

The current pastor, the Rev. Peter Plagge, has a yellowed relic of Vermont’s great flood of early November 1927: The Dec. 7, 1927, edition of the local newspaper, the Waterbury Record, has a photo taken in his church basement. The caption reads, “Where Over 700 Waterbury People Were Served A Bountiful Thanksgiving Dinner By the Generosity of Neighborly Burlington People.”

“It’s the highest point, which is why in 1927 the church was so central because it was the only point in town that was dry,” said Plagge.

Last summer the same church was the community’s emergency shelter where people fleeing Tropical Storm Irene’s floodwaters gathered on Aug. 28 before they were moved to the elementary school, which had electricity throughout the night.

For months after the ’27 flood refugees and relief workers went to the church every day where hot meals were prepared in the kitchen that has changed little since Calvin Coolidge was president. Now the church serves as a refuge for a local day care center displaced by the flood and Plagge helps manage a local emergency fund that before the flood would get $10,000 a year. Now it has more than $300,000.

In many ways the descriptions of what happened to Waterbury in 1927 mirror what happened last summer when the Winooski River overflowed its banks, forced scores from their homes, closed businesses, most of the state offices and prompted the evacuation of the patients from the State Hospital.

“People were just walking in the door in a steady stream and everybody wanted to know what was going on,” Plagge said of last summer’s flood. “It was chaos in here. There were babies crying and dogs barking.”

The ’27 flood fundamentally changed the state physically, politically and socially, ushering the state, according to some, into the 20th century. Officials, volunteers and victims working to rebuild Waterbury and the state now recognize what they are doing could have the same long-term consequences, but many are challenged by the more immediate needs for relief.

“Calamities are sometimes divine opportunities God, the General Government and Sister Communities help those who help themselves. Let us invite that help by unitedly taking hold and working mightily,” says a small ad by a Lamoille County bank on an inside page of that same edition of the Waterbury Record that carried the Thanksgiving photo.

“There’s no question this is an event of historical significance and what we do in our recovery is just as significant as the result of ’27,” said Sue Minter, the state’s chief recovery officer and a Waterbury resident. “Even as we are in the moment of this emergency response, it’s also the time that we need to begin to think more broadly and more about the future.”

Almost since the rain stopped last August people compared the damage caused by Irene to the flood of 1927. As a pure rain event, Irene rivaled the earlier flood from an unnamed storm that ran up the East Coast before stalling over Vermont and western New England. But given other factors, the flood caused 85 years ago still rates as Vermont’s greatest natural disaster.

“We came close. We came awfully close. With the record wet spring, if you would have had that into July and August, then you probably would have exceeded ’27,” said Scott Whittier of the National Weather Service.

The 1927 flood killed 84, destroyed 1,200 bridges, ripped up miles of railroad track, paralyzed the state’s nascent road system and left thousands homeless. Irene killed six, damaged or destroyed more than 200 bridges and 500 miles of highway and left thousands homeless.

Some of the changes that grew out of the 1927 recovery were purely practical, proving valuable during Irene. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates its flood control projects built in Vermont in the middle years of the last century _ after the ’27 flood and other weather events in the 1930s showed the need _ prevented almost $31 million in damage from Irene, and those were just the federal dams.

The flood changed Vermont politics. In 1928, Republican Gov. John Weeks ran for re-election so he could continue his recovery work. The decision broke Vermont’s decades-long “mountain rule,” which saw governors run for one, two-year term, with the governors alternating between the east side of the state and the west.

“For the first time since before 1870, Vermonters had an opportunity to vote on the performance of an incumbent governor,” said state Archivist Gregory Sanford. “This, according to some observers, weakened the power of party leaders and strengthened the hand of governors.”

The ’27 flood also fundamentally changed Vermont’s relationship with the federal government, clearing the way so that during the 1930s the staunchly Republican Vermont was well-positioned to take advantage of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, intended to help the country recover from the Great Depression.

Minter is overseeing what she hopes will create similar, long-term changes. One example she points to are changes in the way the state’s bridge engineers, who rebuilt destroyed spans in record time after Irene, are rethinking their jobs to make the process more efficient and less expensive. “We are trying to capitalize on that and institutionalize it,” she said.

Back in Waterbury, a vision statement proposed by the chairwoman of the Select Board, Rebecca Ellis, who is also the community’s representative to the Legislature, calls for building “a sustainable economy and infrastructure for the 21st Century that is flood-resilient, carbon-reducing, technology-driven and livable.”

But making changes for the next century is far from the minds of some people in the community who are still struggling to repair damaged property or find permanent housing.

Plagge, the minister of the Congregational Church, said he was in the damaged living room of a couple when they got into a fight about whether to fix their house. “She said, `why are we doing this? I don’t even know if we want to stay here or not,”‘ he said.

“If it happens again, most of Waterbury is up and leaving,” he said. “If we were to get flooded again this spring to the extent that we got flooded, I seriously think this would be a ghost town.”

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