The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Floods test Vermont’s quaint mountain towns in age of climate change

People walk across a bridge damaged by floodwaters in Ludlow, Vt., on Tuesday. (Steven Senne/AP)
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LUDLOW, Vt. — When Jake Baraw descended the steps into his bar on the main street of this small town on Tuesday, he found mud and darkness.

The Black River, swollen by Vermont’s worst flooding in more than a decade, had filled the space nearly to the ceiling before receding. The waters lifted a sofa onto the bar counter. In the kitchen, the walk-in refrigerator lay tossed like a cardboard box.

“Everything but the lights is toast,” said Baraw, 26. He pointed to a white line on a column, marking the height of the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, a deadly event seared into the state’s memory. The dampness from Monday’s deluge was just an inch lower.

More heavy rain forecast for flood-ravaged Vermont. It could be a problem.

“People described Irene as a 50-year storm,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “To see something like this only 10 years later is a little shocking.”

In this small town tucked into the spine of mountains that divides Vermont, more than six inches of rain fell during the storm, causing devastating flooding that inundated streets, damaged roads and swept away parts of hillsides.

For residents, Monday’s flooding caused a deep sense of uncertainty and worry. It was not just the wreckage, but the repetition: How could they be facing catastrophic damage again, so soon? What does it mean to stay safe in a time when the weather can lurch to extremes?

Video recorded on July 11, shows much of Montpelier, Vt., under flood waters after a severe storm dumped 9 inches of rain over 36 hours. (Video: The Washington PostVermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets via Storyful)

Ludlow and other towns dotting Vermont’s mountain valleys are a major draw for the state’s tourism industry and home to its famed ski resorts. But the topography is also a vulnerability in a changing climate as rainfall is funneled down mountains and into small valleys. Those dangers became clear after Tropical Storm Irene. While Vermont made important changes to build resilience after 2011, many acknowledge much more work remains.

“An extreme weather event — flooding — is now not an aberration, but a certainty,” said Sue Minter, a former state official who oversaw Vermont’s rebuilding after Irene. “It really is incumbent upon all of us to support one another in recovery, but with a very clear eye that this will continue.”

Minter said the hard-won lessons from the last crisis are helping Vermont now: The state better knows how to coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and residents are mobilizing to help their neighbors, thanks to their collective memory of the prior storm. After Irene, the state also tightened its building codes, bought back homes from people living in flood zones and shaped the flow of rivers to decrease flooding.

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