Vermont towns to take years on flood mitigation with increased extreme weather threats

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The aptly named Inn by the River is perched on the banks of the Lamoille River, just off Route 15 in Hardwick, Vermont.

It’s a precarious spot: During a flood in the 1970s, the hotel got dragged into the river. And last July it happened again. The Lamoille crested at 21 feet, inundated the hotel, and nearly pulled it back into the waterway.

This time, the Inn by the River is not coming back.

On Tuesday, almost exactly a year after the July 2023 flood, an excavator dragged its bucket across the top of the hotel, peeling off the red metal roof and crushing wooden rafters. The town of Hardwick got $942,097 from Vermont Emergency Management to buy and demolish the hotel.

“The municipality is now the owner of the property,” said David Upson, Hardwick’s town manager, on Tuesday. “We have restrictions on the deed as to what we can do — so this property could never be developed.”

The town wants to get more funds to turn the now-vacant lot into an open space for the river to spread out during a flood, Upson said.

“Why don’t we give the river a wide berth, give Mother Nature a wide berth?” Upson said as he stood along the Lamoille River. “Make it so the flooding can happen and not destroy property. I think that’s the name of the game.”

A year after floods devastated many municipalities across Vermont, most of the damage has been repaired — culverts and roads have been replaced, and homeowners have dried out their basements and replaced the drywall.

But with the threat of more extreme storms looming due to climate change, there’s an urgent need for towns to build flood mitigation projects. That work will take years and cost millions of dollars.

The Lamoille River runs through Hardwick and along a section of Route 15. (Liam Elder-Connors/Vermont Public)

Combining buyouts and floodplain restoration is an effective strategy. After Tropical Storm Irene, the town of Northfield bought and demolished seven homes along the Dog River to reestablish a floodplain. Officials estimated that the project reduced flooding by 6 inches there last July.

Vermont needs more of these projects, according to Stephanie Smith, the state hazard mitigation officer.

“An individual property buyout gets that person out of a tough spot,” Smith said in a recent interview. “But our hope is that we’re doing buyouts that are adjacent to one another in a way that allows us to do restoration, as well.”

Following last July’s floods, Vermont is poised to get between $80 million and $90 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — more than double what the state got for similar work after Irene. The money can be used to fund projects like buyouts, floodplain restoration, and installing bigger bridges and culverts, Smith said.

Federal and state funding is essential for getting these mitigation projects done, especially for small municipalities.

The town of Londonderry spent a million dollars repairing damage from last year’s flood. That’s a lot of money for a town with a $2.5 million operating budget.

“We took quite a hit,” said Shane O’Keefe, Londonderry’s town administrator.

So far, FEMA has given the town half a million dollars to cover repair costs, O’Keefe said. But the town will need more money to tackle mitigation work, like replacing a bridge that washed out during Irene and again in last July’s storm. That project could cost up to $5 million — twice the size of the town budget.

“We’re a small community with very little in the way of resources,” O’Keefe said. “And it’s difficult to tackle these larger projects while we’re maintaining the business of the town.”

FEMA hazard mitigation grants usually require towns to chip in 25% of the project’s cost, but for this round of projects, the state is picking up that portion of the tab.

“So there’s significantly more interest because we’re covering 100% of the project cost,” Smith said.

It can take years for FEMA-funded projects to get approved and built, and in the meantime, climate change is bringing more extreme weather. Last year some Vermont towns were hit by two severe floods — one in July and another in December.

Cambridge was one of the towns that got hit twice.

“Many homes were ready to move in for Christmas after being flooded out in July,” said Eric Boozan, Cambridge’s interim town administrator. “And then lost everything a second time within six months.”

With the threat of more storms looming, Boozan said he wishes there was a way to get mitigation projects done a little faster.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by Vermont Public. 

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