How a Vermonter forged a Norman Rockwell painting — and why his family is thankful

How a Vermonter forged a Norman Rockwell painting — and why his family is thankful
A man looking at two paintings in a museum.
Don Trachte Jr. adjusts his father’s replica of the Norman Rockwell painting “Breaking Home Ties” (left) next to a full-size photo of the original. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

The late Vermont artist Norman Rockwell is best known this time of year for “Freedom from Want,” his 1943 portrait of three generations of family gathered for Thanksgiving.

The four grown children of Don Trachte are grateful for another Rockwell work, “Breaking Home Ties.” Many people recognize the 1954 Saturday Evening Post cover for its stoic farmer seeing off his college-bound son. The Trachtes know it better as the painting their father purchased for $900, then forged a copy of so he could hide the original during a contentious divorce.

This is not your typical holiday story. But in the end — and as seen in a new exhibit, “The Norman Rockwell Mystery,” at Bennington’s Monument Arts and Cultural Center — it’s punctuated by a $15.4 million payoff.

As his children tell it, Trachte was the cartoonist of the Sunday comic strip “Henry” — syndicated to 400 newspapers in 40 countries from 1935 to 2005 — when they moved from the Midwest to the Arlington-Sandgate town line in 1950.

Trachte soon befriended a palette of renowned area artists, including Grandma Moses and Saturday Evening Post illustrators John Atherton, George Hughes, Gene Pelham and Mead Schaeffer. But the cartoonist was most drawn to Rockwell, who worked for the Post when it was the most widely circulated weekly in America.

Completing his first Post cover in 1916, Rockwell created 322 more until his last in 1963. His 1951 “Saying Grace” was voted the most popular in the magazine’s history. Second place went to “Breaking Home Ties,” the final cover he created in Vermont before moving to Massachusetts.

Trachte loved the latter painting, in part because his neighbor had posed as the farmer. Seeing the work for sale at Manchester’s Southern Vermont Arts Center in 1962, the cartoonist bought it for $900.

A photo of two men smiling.
Vermont artist Norman Rockwell (left) and cartoonist Don Trachte, as pictured in a 1955 autographed photo.

Trachte hung “Breaking Home Ties” in his living room. Then he and his wife, breaking their own home ties, divorced in 1973.

Aiming to divide the couple’s assets, lawyers called for an art sale. But Trachte, not wanting to part with the Rockwell, convinced his wife they should keep eight various collected works so their children could inherit them.

And so “Breaking Home Ties” remained in the family, with Rockwell borrowing it for special shows in such world capitals as Cairo, Moscow and Washington, D.C.

After Trachte moved to an assisted-living home in 2001, his children sent the painting for display and safekeeping at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Enter John Howard Sanden, artist of the official White House portraits of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

“Imagine my puzzlement,” Sanden wrote on his website, “when visiting the exhibition for the first time and confronting the large canvas labeled ‘Breaking Home Ties,’ I realized at once that the painting before me was not by Norman Rockwell.”

Sanden mailed seven letters to the museum starting in 2003, pointing out such discrepancies as the work’s faded colors. But curators, explaining away such changes as due to the passage of time and improper cleaning, held firm they were exhibiting the original.

Trachte died in 2005 at age 89, leaving his children the painting — and lingering questions about its authenticity. Son Dave was searching for answers on St. Patrick’s Day 2006 when he called his brother Don Jr.

In a recent interview, the latter remembered his sibling’s pronouncement: “I think I found something.”

Paintings on a wall.
A new exhibit, “The Norman Rockwell Mystery,” at Bennington’s Monument Arts and Cultural Center includes the late Vermont cartoonist Don Trachte’s drawing table. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Meeting at their father’s old studio, the brothers noticed a gap behind a bookcase along the wall. The wood paneling, they discovered, was actually a sliding door. Opening it, they found a crawl space with all eight paintings from the divorce settlement, including the Rockwell.

Failing to unearth any written explanation, the family contacted the Norman Rockwell Museum, which confirmed all the hidden works were originals and the “Breaking Home Ties” it had on display was a replica.

The New York Times reported the revelation on its front page of April 6, 2006. In an exclusive interview, the family speculated that Trachte painted the duplicate himself to keep the true one away from divorce lawyers.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” ex-wife Elizabeth Markey was quoted as saying.

Amid the publicity, the children decided to auction off the Rockwell.

“People don’t realize how large these paintings are,” Don Jr. said of a framed canvas that’s nearly 5 feet in width and height. “It’s a burden if you have something too valuable.”

And so the family sat at New York’s famed Sotheby’s auction house in November 2006 as the original their father purchased for $900 went up for bid.

“You always worry at an auction,” Don Jr. recalled. “Anything can happen, right?”

Within minutes, his anxiety morphed into amazement when the painting sold to an anonymous bidder for a then-record $15.4 million.

The family returned to Vermont with the replica — now part of the exhibit “The Norman Rockwell Mystery” that just opened at Bennington’s Monument Arts and Cultural Center. The show features the forgery next to a full-size photo of the original, which went back into hiding after the auction.

The family doesn’t regret letting go of such a prized possession.

“A lot of people have paintings,” Don Jr. said. “Lucky us, we’ve got a heck of a story.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: How a Vermonter forged a Norman Rockwell painting — and why his family is thankful.

In the rural town of Washington, rumors fill the void as details prove scarce in the deaths of 2 women

A sign for S. Poor Farm Road and a cross for Michele Demar.
A cross marks the location where Michele Demar’s body was found on Aug. 3. She was one of two women recently found dead on Poor Farm Road in Washington. Photo by Diane Derby/VTDigger

WASHINGTON — At the place where Poor Farm Road meets Route 110, about five miles south of Washington Village, a simple wooden cross stands beside the road sign where Michele Demar’s body was found on the morning of Aug. 3.

The cross, placed by her family, is adorned with photos of Demar as a child and as a young woman. It bears her name and a simple heart at the intersection of the wooden pieces.

The 33-year-old woman’s death received little attention at the time, as outward appearances suggested her death was by suicide. A press release issued by the Vermont State Police said an autopsy confirmed that Demar’s death was due to hanging but added, “the manner of death remains pending.” As of this month, her death certificate still said the same.

“Initial evidence gathered at the scene indicated the death is not suspicious, but this remains an active and open case,” state police said in mid-August, encouraging anyone with information to call the agency or leave an anonymous tip.

Photos of a girl affixed to a wooden cross
Photos of Michele Demar adorn a cross that her family put up following her death on Aug. 3. Her father doesn’t believe that she would have taken her own life. Photo by Diane Derby/VTDigger

But Demar’s death has received more attention, and more scrutiny, since Oct. 25, when hunters came across the body of a second woman, 23-year-old Tanairy “Tanya” Velazquez Estrada, at the northern end of Poor Farm Road. The remoteness of the location was not lost on area residents, who were still questioning the circumstances of Demar’s death about three miles away and not even three months earlier.

“People come up here to dump tires and trash, not bodies,” said Bob Sherman, a retired Montpelier lobbyist and 40-year Washington resident. Velazquez Estrada’s body was found about 20 feet from the gate to his property, Sherman said, in or near an old cellar hole at a spot where the rural road turns particularly rugged.

“Clearly, the person who dumped the body didn’t have four-wheel-drive,” he said. Noting that the remote road has long attracted illicit activities, he added, “I believe they knew exactly where they were going when they left that body there.”

Velazquez Estrada, who state police said had lived “most recently” in Barre, had been reported missing by her mother on the same day the hunters found her body, police said. Her mother told police in Fitchburg, Massachusetts that she had not heard from her daughter in more than a week.

A woman stands over a desk in a classroom.
Tanairy Velazques Estrada in 2019. Photo via Fitchburg Public Schools

The cause of Velazquez Estrada’s death remains pending, as toxicology tests are expected to take from “several weeks to several months,” state police said.

On Thursday, Maj. Dan Trudeau, who heads the state police Major Crime Unit, confirmed that police “were treating it as a homicide,” but offered few other details, citing the importance of protecting the investigation.

In the days following the discovery of Velazquez Estrada’s body, grisly details about her death spread among community members in the small central Vermont town, which claims just more than 1,000 residents, while high school students took to social media to share what they had heard.

Rumor and speculation have filled the void left by the lack of information offered by state police, whose resources have been stretched thin by a string of eight apparent homicide cases in the month of October alone.

While it is not unusual for police to hold back details of a case that is under active investigation, Sherman and others said the silence does little to squelch the rumors or offer residents some needed context.

With the deaths being the topic of conversations at local gathering spots, including the Washington Village Store and the post office, Sherman said of Demar’s death, “I haven’t talked to anyone in town who believes it was a suicide.”

A gas station with a sign for coca cola.
The Washington Village Store, where a flier promotes Sunday’s candlelight vigil. Photo by Diane Derby/VTDigger

“Two deaths on a rural road, it makes no sense,” Sherman said, adding that the deaths have prompted “a plethora of emotions.”

“Some people are scared, some are confused, some are angry,” he said. “I think they should be releasing more information to the community.”

Trudeau, however, said nothing more could be offered at this point.

“I’m well aware that with any death investigation, there are often rumors among people in the communities,” he said. “In these cases, I cannot provide any more details to the public because it would jeopardize the investigation.”

Trudeau also declined to say whether there are any known connections between the two women or their deaths.

“The investigations into both of the deaths have been complicated by the fact it has been difficult to track down and interview associates,” he said. “But that is common in a lot of investigations.”

As he spoke, he chose his words carefully, clearly struggling with the limitations of what he could offer and urging patience.

“I feel like we’re making progress on the majority of the cases that we have pending right now,” he said. “Unfortunately, cases sometimes take a long time. They are not solved in the first week or so, and it is frustrating to us as well.”

What are the chances?

Henry Demar, Michele’s father, is among those looking for answers.

“Police aren’t telling me anything. It’s been very limited. I’ve actually had to contact them and they are all short-staffed,” Demar said this week.

Demar said his last contact with police was when he reached out to the detective heading up his daughter’s case and learned that there were polygraph tests being conducted. He estimates that was about five weeks ago.

There’s been no further communication since Velazquez Estrada’s body was found, he said.

“I know police had issued a statement saying (Velazquez Estrada’s) death was not connected to any of the other ones where foul play was happening, but they didn’t mention whether it had anything to do with our daughter’s death,” said Demar, a Northfield resident who, with his wife, also named Michele, have custody of their daughter’s two children.

Demar is forthright in acknowledging that his daughter led a troubled life, stemming from a decade-long struggle with substance use disorder. She found it difficult to stay off drugs after she was recently released from jail, despite a period of sobriety when she appeared to be pulling her life back together, he said.

Demar has his own theories on how and why his daughter may have died, mostly related to her being caught up in the drug culture that he believes left her vulnerable. While his daughter had previously used heroin, he said, she had more recently turned to crack cocaine.

Demar also believes there are inconsistencies in the stories of the last people to have seen his daughter alive, and he isn’t accepting that his daughter took her own life on that August morning, an explanation he said state police offered soon after her body was found.

“They specifically told me it looked like suicide and I said ‘no way.’ My daughter has certainly been in the dumps before, but she had two kids she loved and she and her sister were very close,” he said. “Michele would have left a note, and she wouldn’t have just drove out there and said, ‘that’s it.’”

“Something’s not right. She could have been drugged out. I just really don’t think my daughter would have done this to herself,” he said, adding that he has heard the speculation and rumors related to his daughter’s death. In one instance, a photo of her deceased body was photoshopped in a manner that only fueled the rumors, he said.

In light of the second woman’s death, Demar said the notion of his daughter dying by suicide seems even harder to believe.

“Something’s going on there, two on Poor Farm Road,” he said. “What are the chances?”

Little has been publicly released about the circumstances of Velazquez Estrada’s death, although those with knowledge of the case have said the injuries to her body were extensive and vicious. Efforts to reach her family members were unsuccessful. Fitchburg police, who took the missing persons report from her mother, declined to release the report, citing the ongoing police investigation in Vermont.

At the Goodrich Academy in Fitchburg, Principal Alexis Curry confirmed that Velazquez Estrada was a 2020 graduate of the alternative high school, which is part of the public school system. Curry said she had not been aware of Velazquez Estrada’s death.

“She was a very kind young lady. Staff were very fond of her,” Curry said. Noting that Velazquez Estrada had “overcome a lot of challenges in her life,” she added, “She just wanted to graduate and do bigger things.”

A 2019 photo from the Fitchburg Public School website shows a photo of Velazquez Estrada working with elementary school students as part of a community service learning program.

Community candlelight vigil planned

Diane Kinney is co-director of Circle, one of three agencies working in central Vermont to support people affected by domestic and sexual violence. She said the two deaths, combined with reports by women who said they have recently encountered suspicious behavior on rural backroads, has only heightened anxiety levels, as evidenced by an uptick in calls to her agency in October.

“Callers just say they are more afraid than usual; they aren’t going out at night. They are worried that there is someone out there hurting people,” she said.

Since the three agencies — Circle, Safeline and Mosaic — work with survivors of violence, Kinney said efforts to develop safety protocols have been made harder by all that is unknown about the deaths and reports of suspicious vehicles in the area.

“We’re all pretty frustrated, honestly,” Kinney said. “We work with a population that is very traumatized. Therefore, they are hypervigilant and want answers, just like the general public. We are finding ourselves not able to support them.”

Vermont State Police have said they responded to the reports of suspicious vehicles with “high-visibility patrols” in the region that includes Corinth and Topsham, but were unable to substantiate that any criminal behavior had taken place.

“The state police is aware of community concerns regarding these reports, and investigators also acknowledge that individuals may have varying perceptions regarding interactions with strangers,” state police said in a Nov. 1 press release.

While state police have said last month’s eight apparent homicides across the state appear to be “isolated incidents,” Kinney said police could do more to elaborate on the reasons why residents should not feel in danger.

“What else can they tell us? I don’t know,” she said. But given the number of recent homicides, she said, “it just doesn’t seem to add up.”

The sense of increased violence in the area, she said, prompted the three agencies to organize a candlelight vigil, scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday in the town’s Carpenter Park. A flier for the event hangs in the village store, prominent near the exit door. It promotes the vigil as “a gathering for healing from the violence and trauma.”

“We decided to come together and invite folks to find a place of support and hopefully, in the community, find a little bit of hope,” Kinney said. “We don’t have the answers either, but we can support people in figuring out what things they can control.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: In the rural town of Washington, rumors fill the void as details prove scarce in the deaths of 2 women.

Plans shaping up for joint police department in St. Albans City and Town

A group of police officers sitting around a table.
A group of police officers sitting around a table.
St. Albans Police Chief Maurice Lamothe speaks with local leaders during a meeting of St. Albans City and St. Albans Town’s Joint Police Board on Monday. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

Leaders from the city and town of St. Albans shared some of the first details Monday of their long-discussed plans for a police department that would serve both municipalities.

A draft operating budget shows the joint department could cost just shy of $5 million in the 2025 fiscal year, which starts next July and is when the plan is slated to take effect. That total would be shared evenly between the two communities. It’s about twice the cost of this year’s department budget, which supports policing in the city as well as the northern Franklin County town of Highgate, but not St. Albans Town.

On Monday night, a new public body tasked with advising the department, called the Joint Police Board, discussed the budget during its first meeting. The board is made up of six town and city officials and chaired by Timothy Hawkins, a St. Albans city councilor.

Together, the communities — one of which surrounds the other — have a combined population of about 14,000, though officials said that number approaches 18,000 during the day.

The roughly $2.4 million cost to both St. Albans City and Town next year accounts for what police Chief Maurice Lamothe on Monday called a best-case staffing scenario.

Currently, the police department has 12 uniformed officers, but Lamothe said he wants to bring the total up to 16 uniformed officers before starting to cover the town next July (the agency plans to end its part-time contract with Highgate at that time). As of Monday, the department had two new hires in training toward full-time certification, Lamothe said, as well as several candidates “we’d like to proceed with” after conducting interviews.

The chief said his agency does not need 16 officers on-call at a given time, but rather, that figure would give him flexibility when some officers take time off or go on leave.

“I have to make sure we have enough people to do this safely and effectively,” Lamothe said during Monday’s meeting, speaking about expanding service into the town. “And for me to do that, I need to have the status quo — and then one or two up — all the time.”

The proposed budget also includes funding to stand up what Lamothe called a “street crimes” unit aimed at investigating and curbing illicit drug sales in the area. The unit would require an additional two new officers, on top of the four who would be hired to cover St. Albans Town.

The St. Albans department had a “street crimes” unit as recently as 2021, officials said, but it ran out of funding when the town — which had a contract with the city police at the time — decided to hire the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office for policing services instead. Lamothe said that the Covid-19 pandemic also hindered the “street” unit’s work.

In response to a question Monday, Lamothe said he could not say whether the “street crimes” unit would actually reduce local crime, noting that he did not think the area was seeing more crime today than at the time the unit was disbanded in 2021.

He and other police officials present, though, said the unit could allow the department to conduct deeper investigations into drug-related crimes, which often take a significant amount of time and resources — freeing up other officers to do other police work.

“We’re not going to make it necessarily go away,” St. Albans Police Lt. Jason Wetherby said of illegal drug sales. “But at the same time, we’ll hopefully prevent some major tragedies.”

Members of the police board appeared broadly supportive of the unit, though they asked Lamothe to gather statistics on the unit’s former operations for a future meeting.

The St. Albans Police Department on June 21, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I’m 100% for that,” said Trudy Cioffi, the St. Albans city councilor for Ward 4. “I have drugs pushing out right down the street from me, and I live in the ‘nice’ part of town.”

In all, the department’s personnel costs are set to increase by about $1.1 million in the 2025 police budget over the current budget. The department also proposed allocating $200,000 to purchase and outfit five police cruisers, two of which it would buy used.

Under St. Albans Town’s current contract with the sheriff’s office, officials have said they expect to spend about $1.3 million during the current fiscal year. They’ve said the higher cost of the new police agreement is worth it, in large part because St. Albans City leaders agreed in exchange to stop charging a controversial fee on new hookups to the city water and sewer systems that are located in the town.

Town officials have long said that this fee — which has been the subject of lawsuits between the two communities — has hindered growth in the town. The city is slated to eliminate the fee completely on July 1, 2024, the day town policing services start.

Several town officials also indicated that they think the city police department could provide better and more responsive services than the sheriff’s office, largely because the sheriff’s office has a greater area — much of Franklin County — to patrol.

Town Manager Sean Adkins also said some town residents have complained that the sheriff’s office is not responding to overnight calls in a timely manner. Adkins raised these concerns with Sheriff John Grismore, he said, and the sheriff told him staffing challenges are likely to blame — which the administrator said that he understands.

Town officials have been adamant that their decision to end their contract with the sheriff’s office had nothing to do with the fallout from an incident last August in which Grismore kicked a handcuffed man who was in custody. The sheriff is now facing an assault charge in court and possible impeachment in the Vermont Legislature stemming from the incident, as well as a Vermont State Police investigation into his conduct.

While town residents can expect an increase in police spending next year, the city is set to spend about $92,000 less than it does now once the town takes on its new share.

The Joint Police Board still needs to approve the department’s 2025 budget, after which the city and town governments would incorporate their share of the department’s costs into their respective 2025 municipal budgets. Those municipal budgets will be up for approval from voters in both communities in March on Town Meeting Day.

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Nov. 15.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Plans shaping up for joint police department in St. Albans City and Town.

Hunters find body in Plainfield, 7th suspicious death in Vermont this month

Vermont State Police
Vermont State Police
Photo courtesy of Vermont State Police

Hunters on Friday afternoon discovered a body in a remote area in Plainfield, and Vermont State Police say the death “occurred under suspicious circumstances.” It marked the second time this week that hunters found a body in central Vermont.

Since Oct. 5, Vermont State Police have reported seven deaths considered to be suspicious. By comparison, there were only nine reported homicides in the state for all of 2021, although that number spiked to 25 reported homicides in 2022.

No arrests have been made in any of the seven recent cases.

Col. Matthew Birmingham, who leads the Vermont State Police, called the rash of killings in such a short period of time “a little unprecedented” in Vermont.

Until this month, Vermont’s homicide rate had been trending lower for the year, Birmingham said on Saturday. Prior to October, he said, nine homicides had been recorded. If all seven suspicious deaths this month prove to be homicides, the year-to-date total would be 16.

“As far as we can tell, they are all isolated incidents with no corresponding trend that we can identify at this point,” he said.

Some of the recent death investigations are also proving very complex, he said.

“To have so many in such a short period is very unusual — and not just so many, but these are very complicated homicides,” he said. “No one is in custody yet and that is what is making it very upsetting to us and very challenging.”

Col. Matthew Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police, speaks at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Friday, September 6, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I can say with great confidence that none of them are tied together. We don’t have a single person responsible,” he said. The nature of the homicides also differs with each case, so there appears to be no singular pattern or motivation, he added.

In the most recent case, hunters in Plainfield discovered the body in woods along Gore Road around 4:30 p.m. Friday. Gore Road runs along the southern edge of the L.R. Jones State Forest, where the popular Spruce Mountain hiking trail is located.

“Evidence gathered on scene indicates the death occurred under suspicious circumstances,” state police said in a press release issued late Friday night.

Police said an autopsy was planned “to determine the cause and manner of death and help determine the victim’s identity.” State police encouraged the public to contact them with tips related to the crime.

On Wednesday afternoon, hunters discovered the body of a 23-year-old Barre woman in a remote area of the town of Washington. On Friday, police identified the woman as Tanairy “Tanya” Velazquez Estrada, whose mother reported her missing to police in Fitchburg, Massachusetts on the same day her body was discovered. Police said the cause and manner of death was pending but it was also labeled suspicious.

Also on Wednesday, the bodies of two Massachusetts men who were recently reported missing were discovered in a remote area in Eden. Autopsies found that Jahim Solomon and Eric White, both 21, had died of gunshot wounds and their deaths were ruled homicides, state police said.

On Oct. 16, 27-year-old Gunnar Watson was shot and killed at his home in Wheelock. Police have released few details about the death. Watson was a member of the Vermont National Guard since 2020, according to WCAX.

On Oct. 14, a 27-year-old man was shot and killed in Newport Town. Wilmer Rodriguez, 27, of Hartford, Connecticut, died from multiple gunshot wounds and his death was ruled a homicide, state police reported.

On Oct. 5, Honoree Fleming, a highly regarded retired college dean, was shot to death while walking on a rail trail near her home, just a short distance from the Vermont State University campus. Police released a sketch of a “person of interest“ in the case.

Birmingham said the investigations into all seven deaths remain very active, with some expected to be resolved sooner than others. But the demands of so many investigations at once, often requiring detailed forensic work, are testing the limits of his agency, he said.

“We are being challenged on the resource side of the house,” he said. “Without question it is taking a toll on our resources.”

Birmingham said state police are receiving help from federal agencies. The state police Major Crime Unit, which includes detectives, a technology unit, crime scene search teams and victim services, is being augmented by other units within state police to help in the investigations, he said.

“Everybody is assisting. It’s not just the criminal division,” he added. “We are making progress on a few of them. Some are just going slower. But I am confident we will make significant progress towards resolving them.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Hunters find body in Plainfield, 7th suspicious death in Vermont this month.

Montpelier restaurants are reopening after July flood, but at a cost.

A man standing in front of a brick wall.
A man standing in front of a brick wall.
Restaurateur Tom Greene owns Hugo’s Bar and Grill in Montpelier. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Leslie Haviland and Derek Temple have been spending nearly every day for the last three weeks getting a new space ready for the reopening of Hugo’s, the Montpelier fine dining restaurant destroyed by the July flood, as early as next week.

The reopening of Hugo’s and several other restaurants is part of the restitching of Montpelier’s lively bar and dining scene, which went quiet after the floodwaters moved in and the debris piled up on the city’s deserted sidewalks.

“It’ll feel like Montpelier is becoming Montpelier again,” said Hugo’s owner, Tom Greene.

Over at Enna, her restaurant on State Street, Shannon Bates was painting when she spoke to VTDigger Monday. She, too, hoped to reopen sometime next week.

Bates said she had expected to reopen within weeks of the flood — before she realized her building would have to be stripped down to studs. She said she is grateful to have a landlord who took care of and paid for reconstruction. She got the keys to go back into her place last week, she said.

All her kitchen equipment was contaminated by the toxic floodwaters and had to be replaced, she said.

After seeing an outpouring of volunteers in the first weeks after the flood, Bates said she began to feel in the dark as time went by because there was no contact from the state or from city officials. Only in the last few weeks, she said, did she receive disaster unemployment assistance and a grant from the state’s $20 million Business Emergency Gap Assistance Program, known as BEGAP.

Bates has been busy organizing an Oct. 28 Oktoberfest event at Farr’s Field in Waterbury, with other Montpelier restaurant owners that will help offset the costs of reconstruction.

Across the street, Julia Watson, the owner of Capitol Grounds, is getting ready to reopen her coffee shop, which at times, especially when the Legislature is in session, can feel like the main gathering spot in Montpelier. She hopes to reopen in the next two weeks.

It has taken three months, Watson said, in part because it was impossible to line up carpenters, plumbers and electricians when everyone else also needed them, but also because she had to figure out with her landlord who was responsible for what part of the rebuilding.

A group of people standing around a table in a restaurant.
Tom Greene, from left, Derek Temple and Leslie Haviland work to ready Hugo’s Bar and Grill for a Saturday reopening at the restaurant’s new location on Main Street in Montpelier on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Most of her 26 employees have found other jobs and will not be returning. Joe McHugh, the cook, is one of the few who are coming back.

“It’s like having your life turned upside down indefinitely,” McHugh said of the three months since the flood, during which time securing unemployment compensation proved to be a big hurdle.

“It was a complete failure,” he said, explaining that his claim was lost and then a hold was put on it. It took him about a month before he could start collecting unemployment, he said.

He has been back on payroll for about a week, he said, getting the walls and floors finished and the equipment cleaned and wrapped in plastic until it gets put in place for the reopening.

“I’m just looking forward to being back in a functional kitchen, having some sense of order restored,” he said.

Inside Three Penny

Wes Hamilton, one of the owners of Three Penny Taproom on Main Street, has already opened a small indoor space occupying about one-third the size of the restaurant and bar. The restaurant is serving cans of beer, not its famed list of beers on tap, and a limited selection of sandwiches and soup. He hopes to reopen fully by early November.

Hamilton calls the last three months “one giant nightmare.”

It was not until the end of August that the place was properly dried out, he said. He and a business partner would come in once a day to empty out the dehumidifiers.

“It just really felt like nothing was happening,” Hamilton said.

Once the contractor was satisfied that the humidity level was low enough, the rebuilding began, he said, though all the equipment had been lost.

Hamilton said he is waiting for a second round of BEGAP grants to come in. Flood insurance covered only a fraction of the rebuilding costs, he said. The business had $100,000 in insurance coverage, but the lost inventory alone was $50,000. It cost $60,000 to replace the equipment, not to mention paying contractors. He credits Montpelier Alive for coming through with grants.

Montpelier Alive is the downtown Montpelier business association. Together with the Montpelier Foundation, it has been a major source of fundraising for businesses affected by the July flooding, and helped to organize volunteers to help with cleanup and rebuilding.

Hamilton also applied for a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration. He recommends that the federal government make grants available to businesses in times of disaster, rather than loans.

“This is like my daughter’s future that I rolled the dice on in order to reopen the restaurant,” Hamilton said. “If something happens to me, my daughter’s got 30 years of payments to the feds to make.”

Upstairs at Hugo’s

Haviland, the general manager at Hugo’s, has been loading the new menu into the computer system, working on charts for the layout of tables at the new restaurant, which will fill the second and third floors of the Main Street space once occupied by the old Black Door, across from City Hall.

“It’s definitely outside the floodplain,” Greene said of the upper-floor location of the new space, but he said he had no choice but to move, as his old landlord decided not to rebuild Hugo’s old space as a restaurant.

Greene said the new incarnation of his restaurant will be more affordable, less fine dining and more Asian fusion meets classic bistro.

A woman standing at a bar.
Leslie Haviland works to ready Hugo’s Bar and Grill for a Saturday reopening at the restaurant’s new location on Main Street in Montpelier on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

He said that, for a long time after the flood, he was working alone, as he could not afford to keep people on payroll.

“We would not be reopening without the support of Montpelier Alive and the Montpelier Foundation,” Greene said, along with people who contributed more than $9,000 to the restaurant’s GoFundMe campaign, and the support of the state’s BEGAP. The state will close applications for the $20 million grant program for flood-damaged businesses and nonprofits Oct. 23. As of earlier this week, it had received more than 700 applications.

Haviland has been deep in “the scheduling nightmare” of assigning shifts for new and returning employees, she said.

Temple has been reupholstering the tattered barstools that had not been sat on since 2018, when the last restaurant at that location closed. He has also been buffing the old tables to a new shine. Temple said he has also been working part-time, mostly as a bartender at catering events for Woodbelly Pizza.

A sign on the side of a building with the number 44 on it.
Hugo’s Bar and Grill has a new location on two floors on Main Street in Montpelier. Seen on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“It’s been rough,” Haviland said of the three months since the flood. “We’re used to making a lot more than unemployment.”

Still, she said, staff members have held on to their friendships.

A food truck in the meantime

If some restaurants are rushing toward reopening, for others, that goal remains months away.

Melissa Whittaker and Carlo Rovetto, the manager and the owner, respectively, of Positive Pie on State Street, were driving to Atlanta to pick up a food truck when VTDigger reached them Monday.

Whittaker said they had little savings when the flood hit, and it took months for much of their funding to come in. A $4,000 grant from Montpelier Alive arrived within two weeks of the flood, but no other funding came in until three weeks ago, she said.

“We had all our volunteers clean it out, and then the restaurant basically just sat there,” she said.

Positive Pie received an initial $20,000 grant from BEGAP and is expecting a second grant, but Whittaker said she does not know the size of that grant. The business also received a second grant for $20,000 from Montpelier Alive.

Positive Pie owns its building and received an insurance settlement of $100,000, she said. All told, including more than $6,000 from a GoFundMe campaign, the business has received $170,000, but she estimates $600,000 will be needed to rebuild. She said the business has been approved for a $500,000 loan from the Small Business Administration, but that money has yet to arrive.

“I feel like I’m ice climbing with no ice picks,” said Rovetto.

Whittaker said she’s mindful that her 65 employees can only be on unemployment for so long before accepting other jobs. A food truck would enable her to rehire most of the kitchen staff, she said, and Montpelier’s city government has agreed to allow the truck to be parked in front of Positive Pie, on State Street.

Whittaker said the goal is to open the food truck in the next two weeks. But they are months away from being able to reopen the restaurant.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Montpelier restaurants are reopening, but at a cost..

Vermont State University president recommends cutting 10 degree programs and up to 33 faculty positions

a man sitting at a table in front of a laptop computer.
a man sitting at a table in front of a laptop computer.
Mike Smith, interim president of Vermont State University, at the Vermont Technical College campus in Williston in May. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont State University should end 10 degree programs, including agriculture, music and school psychology, and lose around 20-33 faculty positions, Interim President Mike Smith said in a draft report issued Oct. 2.

Smith’s report also recommends consolidating another 13 degree programs and moving 11 among the university’s multiple campuses. None of the recommendations, if implemented, would affect current students in those programs, according to VTSU leadership. The changes would begin in the fall of 2024.

The school administration is soliciting feedback on the recommendations until Oct. 27, according to the preliminary report, a copy of which was obtained by VTDigger. University leadership will make final decisions by Oct. 31.

“None of this is easy, and I recognize that impacted faculty will have a period of transition ahead of them,” Smith wrote in the report, adding, “What we are doing with these recommendations is confronting our pressures head on — not running from them — and forging a path to address each and every one of them either through steps to obtain fiscal sustainability, strategic plan for admissions, or a student success model to keep students engaged in academic life.”

Smith did not immediately respond to calls and texts Monday night. The report is expected to be made public Tuesday morning.

In the document, Smith recommends discontinuing degrees in agriculture; forestry; landscape contracting; an applied business degree completion program; computer engineering technology; music; photography; performance, arts, and technology; climate change science; and school psychology.

Ending those programs would not necessarily mean that instruction in those subjects would cease entirely. For example, the report notes that VTSU’s recently created Center for Agriculture and Food Entrepreneurship is working to “identify opportunities for a newly designed Agriculture program that is sustainable and meets the needs of Vermont’s workforce.”

And while the report recommends ending the degree in climate change science, it also suggests promoting a climate change concentration within an atmospheric sciences degree.

The programs that Smith recommended cutting currently enroll 77 students, he said, roughly 2% of the university’s student body. All told, the cuts and consolidations proposed in the report would eliminate between 20 to 33 full-time faculty positions — between 10% and 15% of the university’s total of 207.

Vermont State University is planning to release details about a buyout program for faculty “in the coming days,” the report states. “If there is sufficient uptake in the buyout program, layoffs may not be necessary.”

The university was formed this summer through the merger of three public institutions: Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College. The merger was intended to put the three on a pathway to financial stability.

Monday’s report — an initiative that administrators dubbed “Optimization 2.0” — appears to be the next phase of that consolidation. According to Smith, VTSU offers too many academic programs — 99 in total — while some have too few students enrolled.

That situation, he said, is financially untenable. VTSU ended the most recent fiscal year with a $22 million deficit, and the university “must realize efficiencies now that we are unified,” the report reads.

Smith’s term ends Nov. 1, at which point he will be succeeded by the recently hired interim president David Bergh, who is expected to run the university for roughly 18 months.

Monday’s report identifies 13 programs that should be consolidated with others, many of which appear to be already similar.

It proposes merging a program in architectural & building engineering technology with a program in architectural engineering technology, for example.

Among other consolidations, the report recommends combining musical theater and theater arts programs, as well as merging a degree in creative writing with one in literature and writing. And it proposes folding a degree in “Health Promotion” into a health science degree or discontinuing it.

Another 11 programs should shift their location from one of the university’s campuses to another, according to the report.

Last month, in response to complaints from faculty and staff that VTSU employs too many administrators, Smith vowed to examine the institution’s administrative positions and their effect on the budget. In Monday’s report, he reiterated that promise.

“Please know that I strongly agree that administrative costs of the university must be optimized and reduced as well,” Smith wrote. “With this first set of recommendations out the door I will now turn my attention to administrative costs, releasing a recommendation before my departure at the end of the month.”

Linda Olson, a sociology professor who represents VTSU faculty for the American Federation of Teachers, said that there were still many unanswered questions about the report.

“I think that there needs to be a lot of explanation still about why the proposal is making the recommendations that it is,” she said. “And also, more importantly, what data they’re basing it on.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Vermont State University president recommends cutting 10 degree programs and up to 33 faculty positions.

FEMA has temporary housing units for flood-displaced Vermonters — if only it could find staging locations

A man in a blue button-down gestures toward a living space in a manufactured home.
People walk up a ramp to a manufactured home.
People walk up the ramp to the A FEMA Manufactured Housing Unit in Berlin on Wednesday, Sept. 27. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to erect temporary manufactured housing units for Vermonters whose homes are uninhabitable due to this summer’s floods — as soon as the agency finds a location for the shelters.

In addition to a sample unit in Berlin, FEMA has six staged in Hartford and more available, ready to be hooked up to utility lines and moved into.

Finding locations in Vermont to site the units has proven to be a challenge for the agency. One option, according to FEMA coordinating officer Will Roy, could be the former Montpelier Elks Country Club, which is now owned by the city. The Montpelier City Council preliminarily approved the proposition earlier this month. Another potential location is in Springfield, Roy said.

Roy told reporters at a Wednesday press conference that of the roughly 240 Vermont households initially contacted by FEMA whose homes were substantially damaged or destroyed, 43 are actively requesting FEMA accommodations. Other families, Roy said, have found temporary shelter elsewhere, whether in a rental, with friends or family, or out of state.

A man in a blue button-down gestures toward a living space in a manufactured home.
FEMA representative Sam Harvey provides a tour of a FEMA Manufactured Housing Unit in Berlin on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

Displaced families occupying FEMA temporary housing units do not have to pay rent or utilities, Roy said. But there is a limit on how long they can stay: 18 months from the date of a disaster declaration. With Vermont’s disaster declaration dated July 2023, displaced families can stay in the units until January 2025, unless the state is granted an extension, according to FEMA individual assistance support contact Sam Harvey.

None of the seven units already in Vermont are spoken for, Harvey said. The goal is to move in displaced families as soon as possible.

“We are not trying to make anybody wait,” Harvey said. “If we had a private site that was available tomorrow, we would start that ball rolling.”

On Wednesday, FEMA officials offered members of the media a tour of the sample housing unit in Berlin. The age of each unit varies, but they are generally less than 10 years old and have been previously occupied elsewhere in the country. The units being sent to Vermont are cold-weather graded for winters as frigid and snowy as Alaska’s, according to Harvey.

A beige couch, light wood coffee table and medium-wood kitchen with black appliances.
The kitchen and living space of a FEMA Manufactured Housing Unit in Berlin on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

Harvey said each unit is furnished with kitchen appliances, a dining table, a couch, beds and basic linens to ease occupants’ move-in process — especially if they lost most of their belongings in the flood. The units include washer and dryer hookups, but tenants have to bring their own machines and take them when they leave. Units compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act are available and include an entrance ramp, shower bench, bathroom supports, and wider door frames and halls.

“We want it to be move-in ready, A., so that survivors don’t have to pay any of their own money for something that is going to be temporary, but B., so it just goes a little bit faster,” Harvey said.

One-, two- and three-bedroom units are available depending on household size, Harvey said. If a large family requires more than three bedrooms, they could potentially occupy two units placed next to each other.

FEMA aims to relocate disaster-affected households within a half-hour of their homes, so they remain in close proximity to their workplaces, schools, doctors and community. For school-aged children moved into units located outside of their home school district, Harvey said, FEMA works with municipalities to help arrange bus transportation.

A sample, two-bedroom unit staged at a state government building in Berlin this week was adorned with tan walls, a tan linoleum floor, a tan couch, bedroom dressers affixed to the walls and a wooden dining table and chairs. To make themselves feel at home, occupants are free to move around whatever furniture isn’t bolted to the walls or floor, Harvey said. They can add area rugs and hang pictures or decorations from the walls with removable adhesive, but no nails.

One of the sample units’ two beds featured dolphin-patterned pillowcases.

“We try to make it a little homey,” Harvey said.

Read the story on VTDigger here: FEMA has temporary housing units for flood-displaced Vermonters — if only it could find staging locations.

Man gets two years in prison for using Covid-19 relief funds to start alpaca farm in Vermont

A gray and white alpaca in a field.
A gray and white alpaca in a field.
A Grafton man has been accused of using pandemic relief funds for personal expenses, including starting an alpaca farm. Photo by JackieLou DL/Pixabay

A former Massachusetts pizzeria owner has been sentenced to two years in federal prison for fraudulently using more than $600,000 in pandemic relief loans for personal expenditures, including founding an alpaca farm in Vermont.

Dana L. McIntyre, 59, now living in Grafton, Vermont, and previously of Beverly and Essex, Massachusetts, was sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Boston.

Judge Denise J. Casper ordered McIntyre to serve two years in prison and three years of supervised release, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts. The judge also ordered McIntyre to pay $679,156 in restitution.

McIntyre’s attorney argued for a lesser sentence of one year, court records show. He had earlier pleaded guilty in April to four counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering.

According to federal prosecutors, in March 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, McIntyre used the names of two of his adult children to file false applications to the U.S. Small Business Administration for loans for businesses that did not exist.

Prosecutors also charged McIntyre with misrepresenting information about a pizza shop he owned in Beverly, Massachusetts, in a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan application in April 2020, claiming to have almost 50 employees when there were actually fewer than 10.

The Paycheck Protection Program was created by Congress to help businesses retain employees during the pandemic.

Charging documents stated that McIntyre sold the Rasta Pasta Pizzeria after receiving the $660,000 loan. He then used the money to buy the farm in Vermont and eight alpacas, the court records show.

McIntyre also used the funds for other personal expenses, including buying two vehicles and airtime for a radio show focused on cryptocurrency, according to court documents.

Attempts to contact McIntyre by phone and email on Thursday were not successful.

The New York Times, in a story published Wednesday, reported that McIntyre opened the Houghtonville Farm in 2021, with its website stating that it offered people the chance to hand-feed and stroll with the animals at the property.

McIntyre told the New York Times that when he first bought the property he did not intend to turn it into a farm, saying he bought two alpacas as “lawn ornaments” but decided after the animals attracted attention to start up a business.

“It wasn’t this mastermind program to steal money from the government and go up and start this alpaca farm,” he told the New York Times. “No, it unfolded and it took on its own life form.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Man gets two years in prison for using Covid-19 relief funds to start alpaca farm in Vermont.

It may be years before FEMA maps show the full flood risk to Vermont communities 

A flood map of Montpelier, Vermont.
A group of people sitting in a room with people wearing face masks.
Residents listen during the second public forum to plan recovery and rebuilding in the aftermath of the July 2023 floods, held at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, Aug. 22. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On Tuesday, dozens of Montpelier residents gathered to discuss ideas for improving the city’s relationship with the three rivers that run inside its borders.

The stakes were high. Just over a month earlier, Montpelier had been inundated with 4 to 6 feet of floodwaters, destroying or damaging large portions of the downtown area and residential neighborhoods.

Amid discussion of building up water infrastructure and restoring upstream floodplains, one key question circled: How far and how high did the flood go, exactly?

One resident, who did not give his full name, made a request for “accessible and easy-to-understand maps” that could tell Montpelierites “where did the rain come from that comes into the city?”

Those maps, to an extent, already exist. The Federal Emergency Management Agency maintains the largest database of estimated flood hazards in the nation, including for Montpelier and many other Vermont communities.

The data that powers these maps — the data that determines federal regulations on flood insurance and community participation in flood programs — is collected through a painfully in-depth and yearslong process of studying the hydrology and geology of every section of river in Vermont.

Which is why, according to FEMA, many of these maps are years or even decades out of date.

One of the latest flood studies in Vermont, for Washington County, was completed in 2013, according to FEMA’s flood study website. But because the study took years to complete, it doesn’t even include data on what happened during Tropical Storm Irene 12 years ago, or during a May 2011 rainstorm that flooded Montpelier with several inches of water.

In other locations in Vermont, far older studies power their flood maps. Windham County, with communities hit hard in Tropical Storm Irene, hasn’t had an update since 2007. Some flood studies date all the way back to 1977, during the decade when the maps were first created by regulatory mandate.

FEMA redoes its flood studies on a rolling basis for different communities, said Kerry Bogdan, a spokesperson for the agency. She cited budget constraints as one reason for the delays.

“Congress does not give the agency enough money to, every time they do a study, to update the engineering on every single flooding source within that geography,” she said.

At least 13 Vermont watersheds are in the process of having flood studies right now, said Chris Hutchins, a senior program specialist who works on flood maps for FEMA. The furthest along is the Deerfield River watershed study in Bennington County, where FEMA recently released preliminary maps for communities to review.

But the 2023 floods are not yet included in those studies, and it’s unclear at this point if and how they will be. Bogdan said FEMA has commissioned a separate study to review the data from the 2023 floods, and evaluate if they would invalidate or complicate the other ongoing flood studies.

Either way, new maps are still years away from the finish line. Hutchins said the earliest Vermont can expect finalized maps would be 2025 or 2026, “barring no hiccups.”

Bogdan pointed out that data from historic floods is only one component of flood studies. Changes in the topology of the area, or in water-related infrastructure like culverts and dams, also determine when and how flood studies are conducted.

FEMA develops a “prioritization” schedule based on engineering and conversations with local officials about what’s been observed on the ground, she said.

Researchers across the country are looking at ways to make the process for determining flood risk go faster. In a 2021 paper on alternative flood models, University of Vermont researcher Rebecca Diehl called the traditional process “insufficient” and “data- and resource-intensive.”

In an email to VTDigger, she said there are numerous challenges with the current system — including the amount of data collection needed to detail the risk faced by specific properties.

“We make decisions (and) tradeoffs between getting these details right, and capturing the general inundation patterns that are likely to occur,” she said via email.

What does a flood map mean?

Under the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, FEMA was given a specific goal when creating flood maps: To determine whether specific property owners were required to purchase flood insurance because they were in a high-risk flood zone.

These Special Flood Hazard Areas, sometimes referred to as 100-year flood zones, also determine how communities in the National Flood Insurance Program regulate development in floodplains.

But the “100-year flood” term is a bit of a misnomer. Bogdan said the agency has moved away from using that term in favor of calling those areas “1% annual chance events.” In other words, that flood has a 1% annual chance of occurring.

“People think it’s only going to happen in every 100 years, right like it happened in 1927. So we shouldn’t be dealing with it again until 2027, right?” she said. But in actuality, “unfortunately, you could have 100-year, or a 1% chance, flood three times in a month, three times in a year. (Or) you could have 100 years go by and never experience that.”

Another way FEMA describes it: If a homeowner has a 30-year mortgage, there’s a one-in-three chance that a flood will reach the ground floor before the mortgage is paid off.

Those chances are further complicated by the fact that up to 40% of flood insurance claims come from outside of flood zones, according to FEMA. Vermonters in the recent floods have reported that they were affected, even though their homes were outside the FEMA flood zones.

Conversely, some Vermont communities have a greater than 1% annual chance of flooding, although it’s not marked on the FEMA flood maps. A review of flood studies for Washington County, for example, reveals that some roads and bridges have a 2% chance or even a 10% chance of flooding each year.

In recent years, the biggest challenge to how FEMA flood maps are created has come from climate research groups, which claim the agency underestimates flood risk by not taking into account how climate change could increase the chances of extreme weather.

First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that publishes and sells risk factor data, estimates that 15% of Vermont properties are located in a 1% annual chance flood zone, compared to FEMA’s 1.6% to 8% of properties, depending on the county.

“In the absence of a property-specific risk model, (FEMA maps) have been used as a default tool for understanding property-specific flood risk. And because of that, you know, they’re really being used for something they’re not designed for,” said Jeremy Porter, head of climate implications at First Street Foundation.

The nonprofit organization incorporates real-world data on river heights, elevation and property zones, but makes different assumptions than FEMA does about the likelihood of extreme weather events, Porter said. It provides free data on its website and sells more in-depth, premium data at an additional cost.

Diehl, the UVM researcher, said via email that climate change means “catastrophic storms” will become more common, shifting the meaning of the 1% flood zone and expanding areas that are regularly flooded.

While flood maps are based on river flooding, she said, the traditional models do not account for flooding that comes directly from hard, fast rain, which is more likely during intense storms. One example would be the flash flooding that occurred in Addison County during heavy rainstorms in early August.

Porter said that, by calculating the chance of extreme weather in a particular area based on historical events, “you’re inherently taking the average of a period that’s already passed.”

“If you don’t incorporate climate metrics that allow you to understand the trending in that data over time, and integrate that into the future, then you end up missing both what the current risk is and what the future risk is,” he said.

Diehl has worked to develop new methods of calculating flood risk that could be performed more quickly and with less detailed data. Her model is a low-complexity system that doesn’t produce enough accuracy for the flood insurance program, but could provide a better overview for communities to prioritize flood hazard areas and test mitigation systems, according to the study detailing the model.

A flood map of Ludlow, Vermont.

The biggest challenge for First Street Foundation is getting more high-quality data to adopt into its modeling in the first place, Porter said. “The flood model is only going to be as good as the data that you put into the model,” he said, and the organization is continually updating it with factors such as new developments and new elevation levels.

FEMA officials said their hands are tied by that flood insurance law.

“These products are regulatory because of insurance requirements,” Bogdan said. “So we are not … allowed to include future forecasted conditions into these particular products.”

In an email statement, FEMA said “the accuracy of the flood data necessary to service the nation’s largest flood insurance program and the nation’s largest regulatory land use program is fundamentally different than the level of accuracy necessary to support First Street Foundation.”

So with all those factors in mind, should communities and homeowners trust the flood maps?

As Porter sees it, “all climate is local,” so communities need to understand their specific environment and climate conditions in order to take action. Different regions have taken very different approaches to adapting for flooding hazards — from wetlands management in Maine to a massive underground water-detention system near Chicago.

He suggested incorporating “as many data sources as you can” in order to understand your risks.

Diehl wrote that, short of “specific projections” of flood characteristics under a changing climate, communities should consider “taking a conservative approach” — for example, making 500-year or 0.2% chance floods the target to plan for.

“It is likely that the frequency of these larger-magnitude flood events, the ones that cause widespread damage, is likely to increase,” she said via email. “The relatively close spacing in time of Irene and this more recent storm highlights this reality.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: It may be years before FEMA maps show the full flood risk to Vermont communities .

Housing troubles follow July flood

A house with a sign that says buy me out of the danger zone.
A house with a sign that says buy me out of the danger zone.
A new sign was added to a flood-damaged home on Lower Main Street in Johnson this week pleading for a buyout from the state, which may be accessible to some extremely damaged homes in the wake of the natural disaster. Photo by Gordon Miller

This article by Aaron Calvin was first published Aug. 17 in the News & Citizen.

A month following the flood that devastated towns along the Lamoille River — and that hit the village of Johnson particularly hard — a white sheet still hangs from a Lower Main Street home that reads “We Need FEMA” along with a phone number.

The occupant of the visibly gutted and severely damaged home could not be reached at that number, but Johnson Selectboard chair Beth Foy characterized her as a “known member of the community” who left town about a week after the flood.

This week a new sheet appeared, and in the same red letters, read: “Buy Me Out Gov. Danger Zone!”

Both messages seem directed at the state and Federal Emergency Management Agency, both of which could play a role in offering funding for renovation or, in extreme cases, a buyout of flood-damaged properties at fair market value.

In July, Gov. Phil Scott indicated that buyouts would likely take place in the hardest-hit areas. The state already used American Rescue Plan Act funds to establish a Flood Resilient Communities Fund last year.

The actual process for getting help from the state or federal government is complicated, drawn out and taxing, requiring far more than a white sheet hung across a doorway. Many of those most in need of assistance are no longer living at their former residences or are overwhelmed by the stress of the disaster.

Now, they also face a stiflingly bureaucratic process.

Lamoille County suffered the greatest amount of damage per capita in the Flood of 2023, as it has come to be called, though by the numbers, the more populous Washington County saw more widespread damage.

Damage reports revealed that 392 homes in Washington County and 181 in Lamoille were deemed uninhabitable, according to data from VTDigger, while 76 Lamoille residents reported needing shelter in the flood’s aftermath.

Volunteer coordinators with United Way of Lamoille County, which has managed 300 volunteers to provide nearly 3,000 hours of volunteer assistance for flood repair at 70 homes in Johnson and 65 homes in Cambridge, have seen a gap between damage and help provided by FEMA. United Way said 421 homes are registered for assistance in Lamoille County, with 165 of those located in Johnson.

“While we appreciate FEMA working with our state representatives and communities, the processes are complicated,” volunteer coordinator Sarah Henshaw said. “People are frustrated and overwhelmed with trauma, mounting costs and lack of housing. We are working to get training by FEMA representatives in our communities and training volunteers to go house to house to support our community members with the paperwork, something that is becoming more acute as we get closer to the (Sept. 12) deadline to register with FEMA.”

The federal agency has set itself up for the long haul in Johnson. The FEMA disaster recovery center is now at Vermont State University’s McClelland Hall on College Hill for residents who need questions answered, assistance with forms and filings, and other information about the recovery process.

While $11.4 million in housing assistance has already been distributed by FEMA throughout Vermont, just $2.4 million has gone to renters, many of whom were among the most displaced by flooding in Johnson and Cambridge.

“In a state and county with a low vacancy rate and not enough affordable housing, those that can’t (or shouldn’t) return to their homes don’t have a place to stay while homes are being repaired or housing buyouts take place,” Henshaw said. “Even with funds for rental assistance, which don’t meet the needs, there aren’t enough spaces available. People are getting worried about what will happen as we get closer to the winter months, and they still don’t have repaired homes or a new place to stay.”

Renters displaced

Eddie Bressel once rented an apartment on Railroad Street in Johnson and had to be saved by his family as floodwaters rose to his chest. Bressel told a television station at the end of March that he was now living with his family.

The building on Railroad Street where Bressel lived is owned by Rene and Christina Cotnoir. The landlords were on the scene assessing their properties in the flood’s immediate aftermath.

They’re still at it. A handful of the couple’s units sustained repairable damage and eight units need to be completely rebuilt.

“We won’t be back in business for months,” Rene said.

Brian Duda, another former Railroad Street resident, is also unable to live in his former apartment as it undergoes renovation. He’s lucky enough to have landlords willing to be flexible, allowing him to break the lease if he’d like to seek housing elsewhere.

Like Bressel, he’s living with family and hasn’t found much within his price range in the Lamoille region. With few viable alternatives, he’s considering returning to Railroad Street but has some concerns.

“I definitely have concerns about whether there is hidden mold or anything like that. It could affect my health, and the risk of it flooding again and just not wanting to have to go through this whole thing again is another big factor,” Duda said.

Some have been lucky enough to have employers with housing. A handful of Stowe Mountain Resort employees, with their dependents and pets, have been put up at resort-owned housing for free, according to spokesperson Courtney DiFiore.

In Cambridge village, Jenn Huante, who was distraught after her apartment flooded as she needs to be near her sick father, will soon be able to return. But another local renter, Joshua Carpenter, recently took to an online forum to seek advice, alleging that his landlord broke his lease and wouldn’t return his damage deposit.

“It’s put a lot of people in very difficult situations, as the rental market was already really tight before this crisis,” said Jessica Hyman, an executive with the Fair Housing Project, part of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. “There just simply aren’t enough homes out there, and what’s out there isn’t affordable.”

The Fair Housing Project has a flood response guide for renters on its website and Hyman urged anyone whose rental situation was affected by the disaster to call the hotline at 802-864-0099.

Loans and buyouts

As landlords, the Cotnoirs qualify as a small business, and could potentially qualify for a disaster loan through the Small Business Administration, which works with FEMA to lend at more favorable terms to businesses and homeowners than typical banks. Rene Cotnoir said he was going to seek SBA help.

They aren’t alone.

Carl Dombek, a spokesperson with the administration, said that 78 applicants have been referred to the administration by FEMA, 50 of which were homeowners. Dombek said the SBA has already approved more than $800,000 in loans in Lamoille County and $9.4 million across the state.

Some homeowners are investigating whether their buildings meet the significant damage threshold, meaning renovation costs would have to be 50% or higher of the assessed value the day before the flood, to qualify for state or federal buyout.

Like FEMA, the deadline for seeking flood assistance from the administration is Sept. 12, and Dombek urged people not to wait for an insurance assessment before applying.

At a meeting hosted by regional floodplain manager Rebecca Pfeiffer in Johnson last week, Foy said nearly 50 residents sought information about buyout programs.

Nearly 30 mobile homes, mostly located in the riverside trailer parks located on the town’s western edge, have been officially condemned.

“It’s a pretty bad situation regardless of the circumstances and the benefits available,” Johnson’s Foy said of the buyout meeting and options for federal aid. “Whatever road you end up going down, it’s going to take a long time, that much was very clear.”

In Cambridge, town administrator Jonathan DeLaBruere said four or five building owners in the village had applied for buyouts.

In the meantime, some organizations are literally handing out money. In Johnson last week, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, as two men named Steven from Hickey & Foster Real Estate — firm co-founder Steven Foster and agent Steven Lawrence — sat outside Jenna’s Café handing out checks.

The checks came from funds raised by the Vermont Association of Realtors, where Foster serves as board vice-president. The two Stevens said the people receiving the checks applied for one of two disaster relief funds managed by the statewide association.

The two relief funds are the Disaster Relief Fund, which provides up to $500 in immediate financial assistance, and the Realtors Relief Foundation, which provides financial assistance for “homeownership-related challenges,” including support for renters.

Vermonters can apply for funding from both, although the Realtors Relief Foundation money — a $500,000 grant from the National Association of Realtors — takes four to five weeks, whereas checks from the other fund are cut quickly.

Those were the checks that Foster and Lawrence handed out last week on Johnson’s Main Street. Lawrence said he and Foster could have simply mailed the checks, but found face-to-face time with recipients, at a bustling hub in a flood-ravaged town, helped lift everyone’s spirits.

Tommy Gardner contributed to this report.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Housing troubles follow July flood.