Drownings prompt warnings in rain-scoured Vt
By Eric Blaisdell
STAFF WRITER | July 06,2013
A home is surrounded by floodwaters Thursday in Waterbury Center. Flash flooding from a series of heavy downpours in parts of Vermont sent streams overflowing banks and damaged roads and railbeds.
Gov. Peter Shumlin is urging Vermonters to be careful where they swim as rain continues to swell and speed up rivers and brooks across the state.
Vermont has been inundated with rain for weeks, and the water has caused road closures and flooding across the state. At least two people have drowned recently.
Rescue crews Friday pulled the body of Steven Orvis, 26, from the New Haven River in Bristol.
Orvis disappeared Thursday, two days after Jesse Belcher, 16, of Barre died in a swimming accident in the swollen Stevens Branch.
A 24-year-old Massachusetts man also was found dead Friday in Lake Groton. An autopsy was being done to determine the cause of death.
“It’s heartbreaking that we’re losing a Vermonter a day in brooks and rivers that Vermonters have always swum in but find that it is a different brook or river than it was two weeks ago,” Shumlin said.
“The water is moving so quickly that it is reconfiguring brook and river beds,” he said. “Therefore, I am urging Vermonters to be very cautious about swimming at all, and if they do, just make sure that it is far from rocks and waterfalls.”
The Vermont Health Department echoed Shumlin’s sentiment about safety first.
“The recent drownings in Barre and Bristol are tragic and we want to reiterate our warning — many swim areas that are usually not hazardous are now unsafe,” said Health Commissioner Harry Chen. “Even the strongest, expert swimmer can be swept away.”
The department says roughly half of all drowning deaths in Vermont occur in natural water settings such as lakes, ponds and rivers.
Shumlin also urged Vermonters to be very cautious when driving in standing water as more flooding is expected.
As for the roads, he said around 200 workers with the Agency of Transportation are out 24 hours a day to open closed roads and stay ahead of crumbling roads and bridges.
“The damage to both town and state infrastructure is extensive, and it’s going to take us time to get back on our feet,” the governor said.
To that end, Shumlin said representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in the state Tuesday to assess the damage caused by rain and flooding in Chittenden, Washington and Windsor counties, as well as parts of Lamoille County. He said the state will be seeking federal assistance as millions of dollars in damage has already been done and more rain is expected into next week.
Brian Searles, secretary of the Agency of Transportation, said in a statement that the rough estimate of damage to state roads as of Friday is in excess of $3 million. Damage to the New England Central Railroad in Roxbury is estimated at $750,000 and was under repair.
Amtrak is looking to restore train service to its Vermonter line sometime this weekend, after flash floods damaged tracks in Roxbury and Braintree on Thursday.
“They are hoping to have it back running as early as Saturday morning,” Amtrak conductor Mike Kujala explained Friday to some of the 75 passengers who were moved onto a pair of chartered buses.
The buses have been relaying the Vermonter’s ridership back and forth between St. Albans and Springfield, Mass., the point where Amtrak’s trains are currently halting their northbound runs but from which they are able to continue down to New York City and beyond.
Wednesday night’s northbound Vermonter squeaked through its narrow valley before the Third Branch of the White River rose over the tracks, but that train is still holed up in St. Albans, unable to move until the New England Central Railroad puts the damaged tracks back in service.
Assistant Transportation Director Trini Brassard said repairs to the tracks should be completed Friday and Amtrak service and freight service should get back to normal today.
Correspondent Eric Francis and the Associated Press contributed to this report.