FEMA official calls recent rains unprecedented
Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Gov. Peter Shumlin, center in blue, and Sen. Mark McDonald, far right in red, are joined by other state and town officials and FEMA officials as they tour flash flood damage Tuesday in Williamstown.
Route 103 closed
by mud, high water
By JOSH O’Gorman
SHREWSBURY — Mudslides and flooding closed part of Route 103 for about 90 minutes Tuesday night.
At about 6 p.m., Vermont State Police and firefighters from East Wallingford, Mount Holly and Shrewsbury responded to mudslide that descended the hills on the east side of Route 103 and covered the highway north of Mac’s Market in East Wallingford and south of the village of Cuttingsville.
Exactly what triggered the mudslide was unclear Tuesday night. Mill River, which runs parallel to Route 103, was swollen and muddy following afternoon showers, but for Art Seward, chief of the East Wallingford Volunteer Fire Department, the mudslide was both unheard of and immediately inexplicable.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Seward, who has lived in the area for 49 years. “There’s a possibility there was a beaver dam or something up there that just broke loose with all the rain.”
Shrewsbury Fire Chief Russell Carrara said two occupants of a home north of the train trestle had to be evacuated.
“It was quite a mess for awhile, but we got it cleaned up,” Carrara said.
The Shrewsbury chief also speculated about a burst beaver dam.
State troopers detoured motorists trying to travel south on Route 103 onto Route 7B to Route 140 in Wallingford.
Travelers heading north out of Mount Holly on Route 103 were detoured to Route 140 and back out onto Route 7.
By 7:30 p.m., a heavy equipment operator for the state Agency of Transportation had removed enough bucket loads of mud from the road for it to be reopened to traffic.
The Route 103 closure was just one of many flood-related problems to strike the state in recent days.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, touring yet another flood-ravaged Vermont community Tuesday, heard from Williamstown officials and residents who were starting to clean up mud and add up the damage after the sky opened again overnight.
Shumlin was joined by Mark Landry, the top Federal Emergency Management Agency official for Vermont who has been working in the state almost nonstop since Tropical Storm Irene inundated much of the state almost two years ago.
“We have not seen things like this. It’s extraordinary, it’s unusual. I don’t know if it’s a phenomenon or if it’s the new normal,” Landry said after touring the flooded business district in Williamstown village. “Business, unfortunately, has been very good in the emergency management world.”
Shumlin, who has visited flood scenes in Warren, Underhill, Granville and other communities in recent weeks, is frustrated.
“We can’t keep our heads above water. We can’t get rid of this rain,” he said. “It’s just unrelenting and discouraging.”
In the last 16 days, damaging amounts of rain have fallen in localized flash floods that overflowed rivers and streams, cutting roads, turning yards into swamps across central Vermont, and frustrating many people eager for summer sun. Two people have been swept away and died after swimming in fast-moving rivers.
Before the recent downpours, there were rainy periods in May and June.
There have been similar problems in New York and New Hampshire.
The weather pattern has been caused by an unprecedented meteorological blocking pattern that has kept moist tropical air centered over the Northeast as well as much of the eastern United States, said Scott Whittier, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Burlington.
Whittier said FEMA asked him if the rainy weather, which has brought violent thunderstorms that caused much flash flooding, was a single weather event. If it is declared a single event it would be easier for the state to ask the president for a disaster declaration that could help rebuild damaged infrastructure.
“I am comfortable that the overall weather pattern is tied in together,” Whittier said.
He said the moist, wet weather has been blocked and prevented from moving away.
“To have a blocking pattern of nearly two weeks where ... every day or every other day (there has been) some extreme precipitation event that allows for localized flash flooding is somewhat — just in my 20-year tenure — unprecedented,” Whittier said.
If the floods were separated by more than three days, each event would have to be considered separately, Landry said.
Whittier said Vermont is in its third major wet period since spring.
A presidential disaster declaration already has been issued for flooding in Chittenden, Washington and Essex counties between May 22 and May 26.
The rain hit Williamstown about midnight Monday. The fire department was called out about 1 a.m. Tuesday. The floodwaters that came roaring down the Stevens Branch, temporarily closing Routes 64 and 14, affected three businesses and about 20 families, said Town Manager Jackie Higgins.
In addition to the damage in the village, roads were damaged in outlying parts of town as well.
“It was just heavy rain accelerating down through,” Higgins said.
During his tour, Landry heard from resident Brandy Todd, who said her village property had been flooded for the third time.
“How often do I have to go through this?” she said, pointing to her inundated backyard that was covered in thick mud. She said her car and pool had been destroyed.
“This is the worst time. You go into my backyard and all I see is my driveway that was over there,” Todd said. “What do I do? I don’t have flood insurance. I’m not in a flood zone. How do I recover from this again, and again and again? I don’t know who to call, what to do or where to go.”
Wilson Ring of the Associated Press and correspondent Sandi Switzer contributed to this story.