Lawmakers pass flood disclosure requirements for home sellers, landlords

Lawmakers pass flood disclosure requirements for home sellers, landlords
An excavator next to a manufactured home in the mud.
An excavator digs out access to a manufactured home that was flooded in Berlin on July 13, 2023. File photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

A few years ago, when Corinne Cooper was considering leasing a lot at a manufactured home park in Berlin, she had some sense that the park had experienced minor flooding in the past. But, she said, she didn’t receive much information from the property owner when she asked if he had done anything to mitigate the risk. 

“I was naive enough to think, ‘Well, you know, I’m only planning on being there two or three years,’” she said. Within that window, floodwaters destroyed her home, when the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River inundated the park last July.

In response to last year’s widespread flooding, Vermont lawmakers have passed new measures intended to give prospective homebuyers, renters and manufactured home purchasers more information about flood risk when looking for their next home.

Vermont now joins a growing list of states that mandate flood risk disclosure for real estate transactions, as climate change fuels more extreme weather.

The new requirements have not yet been signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott, and are part of a sweeping land use and housing reform bill that the Republican governor has suggested he may veto. Yet the flood disclosure measures proved relatively uncontroversial throughout this year’s legislative session.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, one of the authors of the legislation, represents a town that is no stranger to floods. In the intervening years between Tropical Storm Irene’s destruction in 2011 and the historic floods of 2023, “there were a number of people who bought homes that had no idea that they were in a flood zone,” Stevens said.

“Those communities who were affected felt like this was something that was missing from statute,” he added.

The new measures require the seller of a property to tell a buyer whether the building is in a high or moderate-risk flood zone mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The seller must also disclose whether the property flooded while they owned it – and if it faced damage from flood-related erosion or a landslide, issues that arose after last summer’s floods. Sellers will also need to reveal whether or not they maintain flood insurance on the property. And if a seller fails to tell the buyer any of this information, the legislation lays out a clear path for recourse.

Prospective buyers already have some avenues to learn about flood risk. When seeking to buy a home within FEMA’s so-called 100-year floodplain, purchasers pursuing a federally-backed mortgage will already learn from their lender that federal law requires them to take out a flood insurance policy. And the new flood disclosure requirements augment existing rules realtors follow to relay potential hazards to buyers. 

Peter Tucker, a lobbyist for the Vermont Association of Realtors, previously told VTDigger/Vermont Public that he supported the proposed disclosure measures but found them somewhat redundant, given existing realtors’ rules. Now, though, he recognizes that for buyers paying for property in cash – or the estimated 30-40% of the market not working with a realtor – the disclosure law will provide information they may not get elsewhere. 

“I think it becomes more important when you consider the entire marketplace,” he said.

That information may help homeowners better prepare for future flooding. A 2022 FEMA analysis found that states with stronger flood disclosure requirements often have higher rates of residents with flood insurance policies. Without flood insurance, Vermonters are left relying on federal disaster aid to recoup their losses – which rarely pays out as much money. 

The bill also requires that landlords disclose whether a rental sits in FEMA’s high-risk flood zone before a tenant signs a lease, and tasks the state Department of Housing and Community Development with creating a model form for property owners to use to convey this risk. The state would need to create a similar notice for lot leases in manufactured home parks. Flood damage to a manufactured home itself would need to be communicated to a buyer, too.

Cooper sees flood risk disclosure as a step in the right direction. And she hopes people will grasp the gravity of the information when they get it – even if their choices are constrained by Vermont’s acute housing shortage and skyrocketing prices.

“Just because something hasn’t flooded or flooded to a certain degree in the past doesn’t mean that it won’t in the future,” Cooper said. “I’m certainly not wanting anybody else to take those risks.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Lawmakers pass flood disclosure requirements for home sellers, landlords.

Dispute over Abenaki identity in Vermont grows more entrenched

The future of fertilizer? Pee, says this Brattleboro institute

A blue tractor pulling a yellow tank sprayer across a grassy field with trees in the background under a clear sky.
A person attaches a hose to a tanker labeled "fertilizer from urine" under autumn trees with yellow leaves.
Rich Earth Institute sends a pump truck out to donors’ homes to collect urine to treat and turn into fertilizer. Photo courtesy Rich Earth Institute

Kate Kampner is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

When Peter Stickney walks along his cow paddocks in the morning, he notes the scattered patches of greener grass across the pasture. He knows what this means: It’s where his cows have peed. 

So when the Rich Earth Institute, a Brattleboro organization focused on turning human urine into fertilizer, approached him to be a farm partner, Stickney said it was a no-brainer. 

Stickney manages the Elm Lea Farm at The Putney School, a boarding high school in the Windham County town of the same name. For the past few years, alongside six other farms in Vermont and the Northeast, Stickney has been receiving treated urine from Rich Earth Institute to spray across the farmland at Elm Lea.

The institute, its partners and others in the sustainability industry see the practice — dubbed “peecycling” in national headlines — as a cheap, easy and less-destructive method for fertilizing plants than synthetic fertilizer and as a way for people to rethink their views on whether human waste should really go to waste. 

“We’re doing something that is somewhat disruptive and asking for people to look at things differently, change behaviors a little bit, sometimes around where they pee and why,” said Jed Blume, the institute’s development director. 

For Stickney, it looks like this: Rich Earth workers haul a tank of treated urine to the farm on a big truck before filling a smaller tank that Stickney can tow across the farm with a tractor.

“I could very quickly see how much darker green the grass was,” he said. “Dark green grass is happy grass — it means it has lots of nutrients. It’s very simple from my end, and it’s very soon that the results are visible, tangible.”

Federal funders are on board. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program has given the group close to $325,000 since 2013 to explore urine’s role in fertilizer practices. “This is innovative research, and it could lead to something that could really help farmers in a sustainable way,” said Candice Huber, who oversees the program’s grants for projects in the Northeast pairing researchers and farmers.

The Rich Earth Institute is going on its 12th year now, and the process of collecting urine and getting it to farms has evolved over time, Blume said.

The institute says it collects urine from 230 donors, who use one of two methods provided by Rich Earth. Some donors pee into a funnel screwed to a jug, cap the container and bring it to a drop-off spot. Others own a specialized toilet with a trap installed in the bowl that connects to a separate plumbing line. Urine in the trap gets diverted to a tank that institute workers pump out once or twice a year.

A blue tractor pulling a yellow tank sprayer across a grassy field with trees in the background under a clear sky.
A farmer uses a tractor to pull a tank of urine fertilizer over a field. Photo courtesy Rich Earth Institute

Next, the raw urine is transported from the collection site to a treatment center either on or off a farm. Through storage or pasteurization, at certain temperatures, the urine is treated to use as fertilizer. “The Rich Earth Institute has developed a computer-controlled pasteurizer with a high-efficiency heat exchanger to sanitize urine quickly and energy-efficiently,” the site says. 

Finally, the urine is put on a tractor and put on crop fields.  

“There’s been an interest both economically and environmentally in finding more sustainable, equitable, environmentally friendly ways of producing fertilizer, and since our bodies are all little fertilizer factories, folks are starting to connect the dots,” Blume said. “There’s multiple incentives for practicing nutrient recycling both economically and environmentally … The plants like it.” 

Synthetic fertilizer is typically made of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and often produced through two processes, the Haber Bosch method and traditional mining. Treated urine, which contains all three of those nutrients, is a low-cost and sustainable fertilizer source, according to Rich Earth.

One of the biggest concerns people have about urine fertilizer is pharmaceuticals, said Blume, but after doing a six-year research study with the University of Michigan and the University at Buffalo, the institute found “the pharmaceuticals don’t really accumulate in crop tissue at significant levels … Having that research energized us,” said Blume. 

Blume said the practice is becoming more socially acceptable, too. “The global fertilizer industry has seen a lot of volatility with regards to pricing and sourcing,” he said. “Once you explain what the nutrients are, they seem to be really interested in a sustainable form (and) being able to access those nutrients affordably.” 

Along with its farm partner program, the institute wants to offer people help through programs like “Urine My Garden,” which teaches gardeners to safely turn their pee into nutrients for their plants at home. And the institute is putting together a manual for farmers to do the same at scale. “We’ve developed a culture of practice around urine recycling,” said education director Julia Cavacchi. 

Part of their pitch, to organizations such as the Lake Champlain Basin Program, involves almost philosophical benefits.

“We can actually start to think about, how can we as humans come to heal the Earth with what our bodies produce in a way that is generous to the land,” Cavacchi said. “It’s a hopeful space to be working with in terms of using our bodies to heal.” 

Kimmerly Nace had a similar mindset when she and Abraham Noe-Hays created Rich Earth in 2012. Nace remembers how her neighbors would show up to her home in those early days, containers of urine in hand.

“It’s a very hopeful project,” said Nace, who no longer works at the institute. “People begin to feel that something that comes out of their body that’s normally been used as a waste can actually have value in agriculture.” 

“Farmers have been really receptive partially because farmers don’t have any ick factor around urine — it’s not different than any other animal manure for farmers,” said Nace. 

Nace is now the executive director of Brightwater Tools, a spinoff company that makes the technology Rich Earth uses to separate the urine from wastewater. Currently, she is working at a national level to shift the wastewater industry more toward nutrient recovery.

“We really did intend from the very beginning to be disruptive. To really shake it up and say wait, what are we doing here?” Nace said, comparing urine reuse to windmills and electric cars. 

Most of the grants Rich Earth has received from the USDA program are called partnership grants. The awards are capped at $30,000 and go to projects where researchers team up with a farmer to test hypotheses. Researchers set up their projects “so that they understand the needs of the farmer and how their work can really work on a farm.” 

Rich Earth has had seven partnership grants since 2013, several at close to the max funding amount.

“They had a lot of projects from us, and they’ve all been involving human fertilizer and testing it on crops and assessing the feasibility and bio-acidification,” Huber said. “Every year there’s discussion about the safety factors, the ability of using urine, as far as people who would be interested in eating products that are grown with that.” 

Huber said the federal program has full confidence in the institute’s work: “They are very good with their research in the way that they put it all together, and it’s really very thorough. All the regulations are being followed through the state. Safety-wise we trust that process.” 

Thor Retzlaff is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Wasted*, a Burlington company that rents and sells water-saving porta-potties and toilets with eco-friendly features like bamboo toilet paper. 

Retzlaff believes in the mission behind the Rich Earth, which his firm works with.

More than a third of the company’s toilets divert urine from other waste. The company collects and sends it to Rich Earth for fertilizer. “We’ve been working with the Rich Earth Institute and Brightwater tools since the conception of our company,” Retzlaff said. “They very much inspired us to go and start this thing.”

Retzlaff, Brophy Tyree, and Taylor Zehren began the company after attending a virtual summit hosted by Rich Earth Urine in August 2020. Over the course of three days, Retzlaff said, “they essentially brought together the world’s minds to talk about how valuable piss is.” 

He and the other co-founders wanted to take what they learned about urine diversion and combine it with a catchy business model. “From there what we did was identify Vermont as the state that allowed us to turn pee into fertilizer, so it was an obvious choice to move our business to Vermont,” he said.

Wasted* toilets are easy to identify by their bright orange color.

Retzlaff said urine-based fertilizer will catch on as evidence of its benefits grows. “There’s been a lot of data aggregating in the past 15 years that essentially says, ‘Hey, this is not only more sustainable than synthetic fertilizer but it’s more productive, it’s producing greater results. It’s a localized way of retaining the nutrients in any given ecosystem.’” 

Or as Stickney, the farmer in Putney, put it: “It’s just the simplest thing in the world to do.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: The future of fertilizer? Pee, says this Brattleboro institute.

Torn apart by chaos in Afghanistan, a refugee family is reunited in Bennington

Three men of various ages sitting in a room; the eldest wearing a turban looks at the camera while the others appear contemplative.
Three men of various ages sitting in a room; the eldest wearing a turban looks at the camera while the others appear contemplative.
Afghan refugee Musa Muslim Yar, second from right, recounts how he and his wife were separated for two years from their two older sons, Mustafa, second from left, and Naweedullah, right, at their home in in Bennington on Friday, April 12. Younger brother Shahidullah is at the far left. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

To many in Vermont, Feb. 26 was just another Monday, the first day of another week at school or at work. To Musa Muslim Yar and his wife, Zakia, it was a day they’d been dreaming of for two and a half years, when they’d again be able to put their arms around the two sons who could not evacuate Afghanistan with them in 2021.

That morning, at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the couple and the youngest of their three sons, Shahidullah, clutched bouquets of roses as they waited for the two teenage boys to arrive on a flight from the Middle East. After 90 minutes, they saw the boys walk through a pair of sliding glass doors.

Naweedullah, 17, hugged his father and then clasped his mother. Mustafa, 16, followed suit, with both teens also kissing their parents’ hands, a sign of respect in the Afghan culture. A cellphone video of the reunion captured several of them wiping away tears.

“There are no words to describe that moment,” Musa said in a recent interview, speaking in Dari through an interpreter. “We were very happy.”

Man in a blue blazer and woman in a red headscarf walking arm-in-arm at an airport terminal.
Zakia Muslim Yar and her son, Mustafa, 16, share a quiet moment together at New York’s JFK International Airport on Feb. 26, after two and a half years apart. Photo courtesy of Bennington County Open Arms

In August 2021, as the Taliban advanced into the Afghan capital of Kabul, the family — Musa, Zakia and their three sons — prepared to board a plane to the United States. Musa had been serving as a security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for nearly a decade, and feared the Taliban would throw him in prison because of his American ties. The federal government had given their family permission to relocate to the U.S.

With thousands of people trying to flee Afghanistan that August, the airport was overrun with crowds. Naweedullah and Mustafa got separated from their parents and brother, and did not make it onto the flight out of the country. But they were able to safely return to relatives.

“I’m always thinking of Afghanistan, even when I’m working, because my two children remain there,” Musa told VTDigger during a 2022 interview in Bennington, where his family has resettled.

At that time, Zakia said that the separation from her sons created a hole in her heart. The couple worked not only to support their new lives in Vermont but also to send money back to their sons, including paying for their English language lessons.

Meanwhile, multiple individuals and organizations worked to bring Naweedullah and Mustafa to Bennington through the international migration system, according to people involved in the process.

A young man with dark hair smiling in a red hoodie, resting his chin on his hand, against a pale background.
Afghan refugee Mustafa Muslim Yar recounts how he and his brother were separated from their family while fleeing Afghanistan. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

These entities included the United Nations’ International Organizaton for Migration, Vermont’s congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Also part of the efforts were two organizations in Vermont: the Ethiopian Community Development Council, a federally contracted resettlement agency that brought the Muslim Yars to southern Vermont, and Bennington County Open Arms, a volunteer organization that supports international resettlers in the county.

Over the past couple of years, Musa and Zakia submitted documents, agencies coordinated up and down the chain, and volunteers helped the family make calls and write letters to officials.

“It really was a lot of different people,” said Bryan Dalton, a member of Bennington County Open Arms, who was closely involved in the process of reuniting the family. “They arrived properly vetted.”

As a retired U.S. foreign service officer, Dalton acknowledged that his professional experience enabled him to help the Muslim Yars navigate the system. “I did what I did,” he said, “but I did not singlehandedly bring the Muslim Yar boys to reunite with their parents.”

Four men of varying ages sitting on floor cushions in a room, listening attentively. one wears a traditional hat.
Afghan refugee Musa Muslim Yar, second from right, recounts how he and his wife were separated for two years from their two older sons, Mustafa, second from left, and Naweedullah, right, at their home in in Bennington. Younger brother Shahidullah is at the far left. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Ethiopian Community Development Council coordinated with the International Organization for Migration to get Musa and Zakia permission to meet their sons at the airport in New York, said Jack Rossiter-Munley, a staffer with the development council. Under the usual process, he said, the parents would have met their sons in Bennington or at an approved location closer to Bennington.

“Musa and Zakia, for very understandable reasons, wanted to meet the boys as soon as possible in person,” said Rossiter-Munley, who was part of the group that went to the airport.

The Muslim Yars are among at least 115,000 Afghans who’ve come to the U.S. since the summer of 2021 through the federal government’s Operation Allies Welcome, based on data from the Department of Homeland Security.

Around 500 Afghans have been resettled in Vermont during this time, according to resettlement agency figures. The Ethiopian Community Development Council operates in Bennington and Windham counties while the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants encompasses the Montpelier area, as well as Chittenden and Rutland counties.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Afghans now constitute one of the largest refugee populations in the world, with 5.4 million registered in Pakistan, and Iran alone.

Young man in a white t-shirt with a red splash design, smiling and sitting on a couch in a room with plaid cushions.
Afghan refugee Naweedullah Muslim Yar recounts how he and his brother were separated from their family while fleeing Afghanistan. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Since moving to Bennington, Naweedullah has turned 18. He and Mustafa are now enrolled at the local high school, while 14-year-old Shahidullah continues to attend middle school.

The older boys are still adjusting to life in Vermont but said they’re happy to finally be reunited with their parents. “We were very lonely in Afghanistan without them,” Naweedullah said through an interpreter, in an interview at their house.

He and Mustafa said they now feel more hopeful about their future. They stopped formal education after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, an effort to keep a low profile and prevent themselves from being targeted because their parents and brother had fled to the U.S.

“We feel at peace here, mentally and physically,” Mustafa said in Dari. “There is no war. There is no fighting.”

Naweedullah spoke about his dreams of becoming a doctor. Mustafa wants to be a professional soccer player and Shahidullah, a police officer.

The youngest boy is pleased to have his brothers around again, saying they hang out together and he doesn’t feel so alone anymore.

Musa, 46, is now working for a local nonprofit organization, and Zakia, 38, just got licensed to start a home-based catering business. The couple has been looking forward to earning additional income through Zakia’s cooking since they’re no longer relying on government aid, as they did when they first arrived in Vermont in January 2022.

With the onset of warmer weather, the Muslim Yars are now planning family trips for the summer. They’re talking about seeing Niagara Falls and visiting Boston. 

“Life is going well,” Zakia said.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Torn apart by chaos in Afghanistan, a refugee family is reunited in Bennington.

Amid Black Lives Matter flag debate, Milton school board votes to only fly U.S. and Vermont flags

Individuals holding protest signs next to a school bus on a street with a snowy verge.
Individuals holding protest signs next to a school bus on a street with a snowy verge.
A group of people waves Black Lives Matter flags outside Milton High School on March 20. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

MILTON — The Milton school board on Thursday avoided talking about the Black Lives Matter flag that has flown outside the high school for five years. But the board voted to change the flagpole policy to effectively exclude such flags.

After a three-hour long, packed meeting at the high school library, the school board voted 3-2 to allow only the United States and Vermont flags to be flown on district flagpoles. 

Whether the Black Lives Matter flag, which still flew Thursday night, will come down right away is, however, unclear.

“The policy is now officially enacted, but not a word was spoken about next steps with the BLM flag on the flagpole and the plan for removing it,” Superintendent Amy Rex said in an email Friday.

The dissenting votes came from Kumulia Long, the chair of the five-member board, and Jeremy Metcalf. Both expressed concerns about dismissing a student-led democratic process that resulted in the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag in 2019.

A group of students advocated for and followed the required process to create a detailed one-page procedure to have the Black Lives Matter flag flown at Milton High School “recognizing that struggle and the work that needs to be done,” Metcalf said.

“Flags are symbolic. So how do we symbolize that we understand these struggles are happening and there’s work to be done and we support that work?” he said.

While the flagpole policy has been discussed by the board for a year, the discussion has largely been around the policy itself, rather than specific flags, according to Rex. The Black Lives Matter flag is the only other flag that has flown along with the U.S. and Vermont flags at the high school. 

During an October school board meeting, Long, the only Black member on the board, proposed removing student interest flags from the main flagpole and flying just the United States and Vermont flags, in an effort to minimize conflict. He suggested student interest flags could be moved inside the school instead.

However, previous discussions this year have included objections to flying the Black Lives Matter flag on the district flagpole outside the high school, which is not visible from the road. That has in turn led to residents recently protesting on the street outside the high school and sending letters to the board in support of keeping the flag up.

That narrative was carefully avoided at last night’s marathon meeting during which members claimed they were focusing on the flag policy and not the flag itself.

“So when I look at this as a policy change, I’m not looking at it as it’s taking down the Black Lives Matter flag. I’m looking at it as a policy that’s not working because we have a division within the community,” said board member Scott O’Brien.

He claimed that the flag was being flown in perpetuity “even though that’s what nobody wanted” and that the flag policy is flawed because no other group has come up to the school board to fly any flags since.

Rex pointed out that per the previous policy, the board could have requested the flag be taken down at any time, and that nothing in the policy states that another flag had to replace it.

Those who voted in favor of the new policy, incumbent Karen Stout, Allison Duquette and O’Brien (both newly elected to the school board) argued that a majority of high students do not support the flag, citing a recent anonymous student-led survey. But two high school representatives on the school board spoke up to correct the record. 

Jack Shannon, one of the student representatives, later explained that the survey had nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter flag. Instead, he said, it asked two questions: Are you in favor of a Milton student interest flagpole? If yes, would you utilize the student interest flagpole?

Shannon said 140 students, out of about 460 in the school, responded. Of them, 61 said no, 39 said yes and 40 were neutral to the first question; 90 said no, 16 said yes and 34 were neutral to the second question.

While the board had already voted in January not to have two flagpoles — one for the United States and Vermont flags, and one for flags representing student interests — that discussion came up again Thursday night.

Some residents suggested flying the Black Lives Matter flag in the school vestibule or on a separate flagpole. One resident said students could apply to fly the flag on the town’s flagpole at River Street Park, a more prominent location.

Resident Sean Tatro, who has previously volunteered to pay for a separate flagpole, reupped his offer to do so at Thursday’s meeting.

Two teachers — Pete Wyndorf and Ellen Taggart — reminded the board members that the decision to fly the Black Lives Matter flag was the product of a two-year effort led by the Milton Students for Social Justice group. To take the flag down without student input would be disrespectful, they said.

Lynda Battistoni is a resident new to the flag dispute. She said some students, like her daughter, don’t know that there was a time when the flag did not fly there.

“I think a lot of this stems from misunderstanding or miscommunication or whatever, about what was really being discussed,” she said. “I feel like this is the perfect opportunity for a tremendous compromise that should make everyone happy. If it is not about a Black Lives Matter flag, then why do you care if another pole has it?”

More than 30 people attended the meeting in person and more than 22 online, with multiple residents speaking for or against flying a Black Lives Matter flag. 

Resident Mary Callahan said the Black Lives Matter flag was “anti first responders and anti law enforcement” and also claimed that it’s insulting to Black people who are “doing better in this country than white people.”

Racial disparities in wealth, housing, education persist and remain starkly in favor of white people in America, according to the Brookings Institute.

Another resident, Susan Mcnamara, said, “I love Black people. I have nothing against them but I don’t think the public would like a white lives matter flag flying, Hispanic, Chinese. Please let’s stop dividing this country, this nation, this little town and let’s respect everyone, include everyone, by not focusing on one particular race.”

Jeremy Metcalf’s first name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Amid Black Lives Matter flag debate, Milton school board votes to only fly U.S. and Vermont flags.

Train strikes vehicles parked too close to the tracks in Barton during eclipse

A train crashed into two vehicles that police say were parked too close to the railroad tracks in Barton during Monday’s total solar eclipse, sending one woman to the hospital with minor injuries. 

Authorities responded to the crash at 3:33 p.m., according to a press release issued late Tuesday by Vermont State Police. Totality in the Northeast Kingdom town of Barton took place between 3:27 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Monday.

A state police investigation found that a Vermont Rail System train traveling north through Barton struck a Toyota Prius at the intersection of Eastern Avenue and High Street, damaging the vehicle’s passenger side mirror. The train then hit a second parked vehicle — a Ford Explorer driven by the woman — and the force of that collision pushed the Explorer 5 to 10 feet into a third vehicle, a Jeep Wagoneer, according to police. 

All three vehicles had minor damage. Police said the cause of all the crashes was the vehicles parking too close to the railroad tracks. 

Read the story on VTDigger here: Train strikes vehicles parked too close to the tracks in Barton during eclipse.

‘One of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in my lifetime’

Man using protective eclipse glasses to observe a solar eclipse.
People standing outside a building at dusk with one person pointing towards the clock tower.
Spectators enjoy the moment of totality during a solar eclipse in Burlington on Monday April 8, 2024. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — In the aftermath of the totality of the eclipse on Monday afternoon, most viewers on the Burlington waterfront departed quickly. But some lingered, awestruck, in the returning sunlight.

“It was absolutely incredible,” said Waterbury resident Mike Timbers, 66. “It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Bettina Haskell, 60, also of Waterbury, said that it looked like “a sunset or a sunrise on each side.”

“And to see stars?” she said. “And the birds?”

Ben Frechette, 34, and Ana Weiss, 33, of Boston, said they had made a last-minute decision to come to Burlington to see the totality.

“Everybody was like you gotta do it, you gotta do it,” Frechette said. “I wasn’t sure until we saw totality. And then I was like, holy crap. This is like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

“It was crazy,” Weiss said. “It was so, like, eerie.”

“Looking up at where the sun usually is and seeing, like, a hole in the sky, is …” Frechette said.

“So weird,” Weiss put in.

“It kind of makes you understand why like, you know, like ancient civilizations saw that and they were like, ‘Oh, the world’s ending,’” Frechette said.

Read the story on VTDigger here: ‘One of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in my lifetime’.

As eclipse watchers arrive in Vermont, some motel residents must pack up to make room

Smiling woman with glasses sitting indoors, with a painting and a door in the background.
Smiling woman with glasses sitting indoors, with a painting and a door in the background.
Annette Berry sits for a portrait at the Days Inn in Colchester on April 4, 2024, as she prepares to pack up her room. Photo by Carly Berlin/VTDigger and Vermont Public

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

COLCHESTER — At the Colchester Days Inn on Thursday afternoon, Annette Berry found herself contemplating a task that was both daunting and exhaustingly familiar: how to efficiently pack up all her belongings and move.

“My George Foreman, my Crock-Pot, my ramen noodle pot … dishes, cups, glasses, knickknacks …” Berry said from the breakfast room of the hotel she’s lived in since February, with a voucher from Vermont’s emergency shelter program. “You know, just stuff that I had in my house, when I had a house.”

The 60-year-old said she has been homeless since 2019, when she lost her Section 8 voucher for an apartment in Florida that was rife with maintenance issues. She and her 77-year-old partner came to Vermont to be closer to family. They’ve since shuttled between motels in Rutland, Barton and Middlebury — made all the more difficult because they lack a car — before finding a degree of stability at the Days Inn over the last few months.

Now, they’re preparing to uproot again. As tens of thousands of visitors are expected to stream into northern Vermont this weekend to catch a glimpse of Monday’s total solar eclipse, some motels and hotels in the state’s emergency shelter program are clearing their rooms to accommodate the celestial event chasers — who are driving up hotel prices across the path of totality nationwide. 

Hotel rooms in Chittenden County this weekend are booking for upwards of $500 a night. The state currently pays motels and hotels $80 a night to shelter unhoused Vermonters.

Three lodging establishments that shelter unhoused Vermonters have told the state they would not accept state vouchers in the days leading up to the eclipse: the Anchorage Inn in South Burlington, and the Motel 6 and Days Inn in Colchester.

A snow-covered parking lot outside a multi-story apartment building with a lobby entrance.
The Days Inn in Colchester on April 4, 2024. Photo by Carly Berlin/VTDigger and Vermont Public

Around 50 households are sheltered through the program at the Chittenden County locations, with the majority at the Days Inn, said Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families’ economic services division.

Most of the households impacted have indicated to the state that they have friends or family who can host them during the eclipse interruption, Gray said on Friday morning. DCF staff are assisting the other households to find options for alternative places to stay, including finding open motel rooms in other parts of the state, she added.

Around a third of the impacted households are required to contribute a portion of their income to the state to maintain their voucher, in the form of “self-pay days” at the motels, Gray said. Every month, such households can decide to leave the motels rather than pay for these days. That means these households could essentially disappear from the state’s radar for a few days over the eclipse and then re-emerge afterwards. 

Berry made plans to stay with her daughter over the long weekend, though she hesitated to ask for the favor. She worries packing into her daughter’s home in Ferrisburgh could jeopardize a family custody situation because of overcrowding. And she fears that telling the state that she can stay with her daughter could make it appear that she doesn’t need her motel room anymore.

“My daughter is the one that said, ‘Why would you stay in a tent?’ She said, ‘You know you can come here,’” Berry said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to lose my voucher.’ She said, ‘You’re only coming to visit.’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, that’s one way of looking at it.’”

Asked about Berry’s concern, Gray emphasized that the motel program is meant to be an option of last resort. If there are reasons why family or friends can’t accommodate someone permanently, “those are conversations that we also have with people everyday, to really try to understand what the situation is,” she said.

For other unhoused guests at the Days Inn, staff have attempted to house multiple people in a given room for the weekend. While the hotel was booked solid for the eclipse weekend months ahead of time, some visitors have canceled their stays, and as rooms have opened up, employees have offered to bunk up multiple unhoused guests in rooms together to give them an option other than sleeping out in the elements.

One guest, who agreed to speak about his living situation under the condition of anonymity, said he’ll be tripling up with two other guests he was grouped with by the hotel for the days surrounding the eclipse. 

“It’s a roof over our head,” he said in the parking lot on Thursday afternoon, as snow fell. “It’s better than the other options.”

Gabe Handy, who owns the hotel, declined to comment for this story.

Nothing prevents motel and hotel owners from declining to provide rooms for unhoused guests through the state program. The state does not have a contract with the lodging establishments, and historically, when large numbers of people come to certain parts of the state at once — such as during college graduation weekends — there’s “disruption” in the motel program, Gray said.

The state is interested in entering into longer term contracts with the motels and hotels, but as lawmakers debate the program’s future beyond this summer, there’s “a lot of uncertainty,” Gray said.

Without knowing what the scale of the program might be beyond July — until which many motel program participants have extensions — the state is wary of signing longer-term agreements, she said.

Paul Dragon, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, said the temporary eclipse displacements highlight the drawbacks of depending on businesses to shelter people.

“The bottom line of this is that, you know, we rely on hotels, which has been really good in many, many ways — we’ve been able to shelter so many people. We saw that through Covid,” Dragon said. “And we also know that when you rely on for-profit businesses to do this work, there’s a different orientation.”

Gray also emphasized the need to move away from the state’s reliance on motels and hotels to shelter unhoused residents. She pointed to the Scott administration’s focus on encouraging more housing development.

“We don’t want to be using this many motel rooms every year, endlessly. We want people to have their own housing,” she said.

On Thursday afternoon, Berry expected to need to leave the Days Inn the next morning. But on Friday morning, staff let her know she can stay until Sunday. Now, she’s holding out hope that enough visitors cancel their eclipse trips that she can stay put.

“I’m still praying to God that come Sunday, I’ll be good till Tuesday and get my voucher renewed,” she said. “But I’m packing just in case.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: As eclipse watchers arrive in Vermont, some motel residents must pack up to make room.

Binge drinking, alcohol use disorder in Vermont ranked among the highest in the nation

Bar chart showing that vermont leads in alcohol use with high percentages of binge and any alcohol use compared to other states.

Journey to Recovery, an addiction recovery center in the Northeast Kingdom, refers two people a week to inpatient treatment for alcohol use disorder.

At the other end of the state, 2 out of 3 patients that Bennington Turning Point recovery coaches see through their emergency room program primarily have alcohol dependency issues.

In Rutland and Springfield, local recovery coaches are also seeing an increasing number of people aged 60 and up who are seeking help for alcohol misuse.

“Every collaborative partner is aware of the high rate (of alcohol misuse),” said Tracie Hauck, director of the Rutland Turning Point Center, “and the increased use among older adults.”

A recent national survey reflects this gloomy picture of alcohol use in Vermont. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2021 and 2022 show Vermont had the second highest rate of alcohol use disorder among the states.

Alcohol use disorder is diagnosed based on several criteria. They include whether a person ended up drinking more or longer than they intended, wanted a drink so badly they couldn’t think of anything else or drinking interfered with taking care of their family or work.  

Vermont showed a 12% rate for this disorder, same as six other states. The highest, 14%, was found in Colorado and North Dakota. 

The survey, conducted annually by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also ranks Vermont as No. 2 for binge drinking. It’s defined as having five or more drinks (for men) or four or more drinks (for women) within a couple of hours of each drink on at least one day in a month. Some 27% of Vermonters acknowledged drinking this way.

Another survey question asked whether people consumed alcohol in the past 30 days. Vermont placed third nationwide, at 57%. The survey respondents included adults and children ages 12 to 17. Among adults, the prevalence is 61%.

Alcohol is the most commonly used substance by Vermonters, and adult Vermonters’ drinking behavior has remained consistent since 2011, said Anne Van Donsel, of the Vermont Department of Health’s division of substance use programs.

Referring to previous state reports, Van Donsel underscored that alcohol not only causes overdose deaths, it also contributes to health problems.

The long-term health risks include weakening of the immune system, learning and memory problems, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and cancer.

“We have seen people in their 20s given six months to live due to a confluence of complications directly from excessive alcohol consumption,” said Margae Diamond, director of the Bennington Turning Point Center.

The fact that alcohol is a legal substance and part of the American cultural fabric, she said, makes it “intensely difficult” for those who are suffering from alcohol misuse to admit they have a problem, seek help and remain sober.

Diamond said she is glad that alcohol dependency in Vermont is getting more public attention, since alcohol is a substance that people often struggle with but has been overshadowed by the state’s opioid epidemic. 

“The majority of funding and attention tends to lean towards opioid use disorder and while there is no debate that is serious and often fatal,” she said, “we consistently see more people for alcohol use disorder.”

Staffers at addiction recovery centers statewide said that, since the coronavirus pandemic reached Vermont in 2020, they’ve had growing interactions with people aged 60 and older who are struggling with alcohol misuse.

Astrid Bradish-Hoyt, a peer counselor at the Turning Point Center in Springfield, said more older adults and elderly people are now calling the center to seek recovery services. Others cross paths with local peer counselors through their emergency room outreach, where they offer recovery assistance to people who are brought in for substance-related health emergencies.

“Elderly people get very isolated,” said Lila Bennett, director of the Journey to Recovery Community Center, echoing what other centers pointed to as a reason for alcohol misuse among this age group. This social isolation became especially marked during the early years of the Covid-19 pandemic due to social distancing regulations.

The state health department, meanwhile, said its data does not reflect a bump in chronic drinking or at-risk drinking behavior among elderly Vermonters. 

The state numbers, from 2011 to part of 2022, show consistent alcohol use among those aged 65 and older, said Van Donsel, of the substance use programs division.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Binge drinking, alcohol use disorder in Vermont ranked among the highest in the nation.

Months after devastating floods, Vermont renews efforts to aid climate-friendly rebuilds

A flooded street in Waterbury, Vermont in 2023.

Overnight in early July last year, Vermont solar installer Bill Chidsey got a call that a grocery store he worked with in his village of Hardwick was flooded. He arrived to find feet of water in the Buffalo Mountain Market’s utility room, spilling over from the rising Lamoille River in a record-breaking rainstorm. 

“The grocery store survived by an inch,” Chidsey said. “If it had rained fifteen more minutes, they’d have lost four compressors.” 

He’s now helping the co-op build a net-zero energy system that will use solar power and recycled waste heat from the store’s refrigerators. But it’s going to be a long project — just one of countless examples Vermont has seen since last year of how sustainable rebuilds in the wake of a flood don’t happen quickly. 

“I think we’re just getting started with this,” Chidsey said. 

Advocates, utilities and state agencies have seen slow progress and mixed success since July 2023 in trying to replace flood-damaged home and business energy systems with more efficient, cost-effective, low-carbon technology. Now, they hope to redouble these efforts as part of a long-term recovery — both to keep people affected last year from falling through the cracks, and to be more resilient in the next storm.

“We consider that we’re now about to start ‘phase two,’ where we hope to go back and talk about energy systems,” said Sue Minter, who leads Capstone Community Action in central Vermont. “In the emergency — with winter and nowhere else to go, and oh, by the way, no contractors available, labor shortage, material shortage, crisis — we couldn’t do the transition work, but that doesn’t mean we won’t.” 

Lessons from storm Irene

More than a decade ago, Minter was the deputy secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Transportation when the 2011 Tropical Storm Irene — comparable in its severity to the 2023 floods — washed out hundreds of miles of roads and bridges across the state. 

As the state’s Irene Recovery Officer, Minter spent the next two-plus years grappling with federal regulators and pushing through new policies and programs to rebuild “stronger, with resilience in mind,” she said. This included allowing easier upsizing of culverts and clearing development out of floodplains. 

Many places with these post-Irene resilience upgrades and reforms saw less damage in the July 2023 floods as a result, Minter said. Vermont officials even came to a recent meeting of the Maine Climate Council, after a pair of weather disasters there, to talk about their approach to flood-resilient infrastructure.  

“When you know you’re in an emergency, and you know everything has been destroyed, you also know it’s an opportunity to innovate … to rebuild differently,” Minter said. 

Vermont, often called a potential haven for future climate migrants, is nonetheless seeing more frequent and intense rain and floods as one of its top impacts from human-caused climate change. The state also relies heavily on pricey, carbon-intensive heating oil. 

After last year’s floods, Vermont leaders wanted to seize the moment to help affected residents make future-looking energy and efficiency upgrades on a widespread scale. 

“They’re ripping out drywall, they’re having to update systems — this is the time to make sure that you do it properly,” said Efficiency Vermont supply chain engagement manager Steve Casey.

Making emergency rebates accessible

Efficiency Vermont created an emergency flood rebate program for affected homeowners and renters, reallocating $10 million in pandemic aid already set aside for low-income weatherization projects.

The new program offered up to $10,000 per household to repair or replace flood-damaged energy systems and other appliances, on top of existing funding for efficient electric heat pump water heaters and electrical panel upgrades. Similar rebates for damaged businesses were just raised to a $16,000 cap

But uptake on this funding has been slow. As of January, only 155 households had received flood rebates of $5,100 apiece on average, according to state legislative testimony from Efficiency Vermont director Peter Walke.

It’s partly because the initial $10 million was “an overshoot to ensure we wouldn’t run out of funds,” allocated quickly “without knowing what the actual need would be,” said spokesperson Matthew Smith. 

But people also ran into myriad barriers to using the money quickly. 

Some lacked up-front cash to pay for upgrades that would be rebated later. In response, the state has begun offering a 100% cost-coverage program for the lowest-income clients, where contractors are paid directly by the state. That program had paid out nearly $92,000 to 10 people as of January, per Walke’s testimony, with 58 more in the pipeline. 

“The households that are still in significant need at this stage were vulnerable households to begin with,” Casey said. “We do have this repeating situation where flood events kind of just exacerbate some vulnerabilities for certain households.” 

‘Life and safety first’

The timing of the 2023 floods was another complicating factor. The upcoming heating season loomed in the months after the disaster, and limited housing stock meant people couldn’t relocate from damaged homes, unlike after Tropical Storm Irene, said Sue Minter.

“In 2023, July, people had to get into their homes as quickly as possible,” she said. “You always have to have life and safety first.” 

The repairs and retrofits needed most urgently were not simple. Many people’s water and space heating systems and electrical panels were in basements, “the first place to flood,” said Casey. 

Parts of Vermont are trying to change this norm — Waterbury, for example, requires basements to be above flood elevation in new or substantially improved home construction, among other flood protections. 

Chidsey, the solar installer in Hardwick, said he and his electrician have tried to shift to putting electrical panels on the outside of homes, with any indoor subpanels out of the basement. Ideally, he said, the cellar becomes “just a hole in the ground that holds up the house, because water comes in often now.” 

But moving HVAC infrastructure out of a vulnerable basement, whether to meet a local requirement or voluntarily, isn’t easy, especially after major damage, Casey said. People may not have a ready space for that equipment on the first floor, or may need mold remediation before taking on serious flood-proofing. 

It means that the advocates working to facilitate upgrades have had to take a long view.

‘The promise that we’ll be back’

Last fall, Efficiency Vermont, Capstone, the state’s utilities and a range of other partners stood up a new system of Vermont Energy Recovery Teams, who went into damaged homes to help people plan and prioritize repairs before winter, including coordinating holistically across contractors and funding sources. 

Some homes were able to switch straight to heat pumps as a cheaper, cleaner method of water and space heating, officials said. But for many, a replacement oil or gas system was the simplest short-term option. 

Efficiency Vermont does not normally offer incentives for installing fossil fuel systems, but made exceptions for high-efficiency Energy Star-rated models as part of its flood recovery rebate program.

“In every case, we looked for something that was more efficient than what they had before,” said Vermont Gas energy innovation director Richard Donnelly, who was part of many recovery team home visits. 

In each of those visits, the teams would take note of residents’ long-term needs and goals for decarbonization, resilience, comfort and lower energy burdens, with an emphasis on heat pumps. 

“We left off with sort of the promise that we’ll be back,” said Vermont Gas CEO Neale Lunderville — that “there’s money available for some of these technologies, that we can help you with the same process.” 

The recovery teams are now under the umbrella of GreenSavingSmart, a pilot energy and financial coaching program for low-income residents run by the Vermont Community Action Partnership. They’ll soon begin revisiting last fall’s clients to facilitate a new round of resilient improvements. 

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s a hopeful pathway to allow these households to have — once they’re fully made whole and recovered from all of this — a lower energy burden and cost burden than the situation they were in to begin with,” said Steve Spatz, an account manager on the supply chain team at Efficiency Vermont. “It really is an opportunity to … upgrade the conditions for the household.”

Months after devastating floods, Vermont renews efforts to aid climate-friendly rebuilds is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.