Old nightmares and new dreams mark the year since Kentucky’s devastating flood

The dream that haunts Christine White is always the same, and though it comes less frequently, it isn’t any less terrifying. 

The black water comes rushing at the witching hour, barrelling toward her front door in Lost Creek, Kentucky. She’s outside, getting her grandson’s toys out of the yard. It hits her in the neck and knocks her off her feet before racing down a street that has become a vengeful river. She and her husband run to a hillside and scramble upward, grabbing hold of tree roots and branches. She finds her neighbors huddled at the top of the hill. As dawn comes, everything is unrecognizable, the land shifted, houses torn from foundations. They begin to walk through the trees, over the strip mine, out of the forest, in their pajamas and underwear with whatever they were able to carry when they fled. 

Then she wakes up.

That night used to replay every time White went to sleep. She started taking antidepressants six months ago, something she felt ashamed of at first but doesn’t anymore. They’ve helped a little, but the dream still haunts her, lightning-seared and vivid. 

It’s been one year since catastrophic floods devastated eastern Kentucky, taking White’s home and 9,000 or so others with it. Her current abode — a camper on a cousin’s land — has become, if not home, no longer strange. But it’s the closest thing to home she’ll get till her new house, in another county, is finished. Lost Creek, though, is all but gone forever. What houses remain are empty husks. Some are nothing more than foundations overgrown with grass. 

White is never going back. “All the land is gone,” she said.

a woman in a colorful dress sits in front of a red structure
Christine White poses for a photo in Eastern Kentucky, one year after floods destroyed her home. Grist / Katie Myers

In the early hours of July 28, 2022, creeks and rivers across 13 counties in eastern Kentucky overran their banks, filled by a month’s worth of rain that fell in a matter of days The water crested 14 feet above flood stage in some places, shattering records. All told, 44 people died and some 22,000 people saw their homes damaged —staggering figures in a region where some counties have fewer than 20,000 residents. Officially, the inundation destroyed nearly 600 homes and severely damaged 6,000 more. A lot of folks say that tally is low, based on the number of residents who sought help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As of March about 8,000 applications for housing assistance had been approved. That’s half the number the agency received. 

The need for help, specifically housing assistance, was, and remains, acute. Most people here live on less than $30,000 a year, and at the time of the disaster, no more than 5 percent had flood insurance. Multitudes of nonprofits, church and community organizations, businesses, and government agencies have spent months pitching in as best they can. Yet there is a feeling among the survivors that no one’s at the rudder, and it’s everyone for themselves.

President Biden issued a federal disaster declaration the day after the flood, and his administration has disbursed nearly $300 million in aid so far. The state pitched in, too, housing 360 families in trailers parked alongside those from FEMA. Many of those have moved on to more permanent housing, but up to 1,800 are still awaiting a solution.

Some in the floodplains are taking buyouts — selling their homes to the federal government, which will essentially make the land a permanent greenspace. It’s a form of managed retreat, a ceding of the terrain to a changing climate. Some local officials openly worry that the approach doesn’t solve the biggest problem everyone faces: figuring out where on Earth people are going to live now. Eastern Kentucky was grappling with a critical shortage of housing even before the flood, and much of the land available for construction lies in flood-prone river bottoms. That has people looking toward the mountaintops leveled by strip mining.

a house with weeds
A vacant building in Whitesbury, Kentucky, one year after floods devastated the Eastern part of the state.
Grist / Katie Myers

Kate Clemons, who runs a nonprofit meal service called Roscoe’s Daughter, sees this crisis every day. As the water receded, she started serving hot meals in the town of Hindman a few nights each week, on her own dime. She figured it would be a months’ work. She’s still feeding as many as 700 hungry people every week. Recently, an apartment building in Hazard burned down, displacing nearly 40 people. Some of them were flood survivors. They’ve joined the others she’s taken to helping find homes.

“There’s no housing available for them,” she said.

Clemons often brings food to Sasha Gibson, who after the flood moved with her boyfriend and nine children into two campers at Mine Made Adventure Park in Knott County. At first, she felt optimistic. “I was hoping that this would open up a new door to something better,” she said, after asking her children to go to the other trailer so she could sit for the interview in her cramped quarters. “Like this is supposed to be a new chapter in our lives.”

But the park, built on what was once a strip mine, became purgatory instead. 

Sasha Gibson, left, moved with her boyfriend and nine children into two campers at Mine Made Adventure Park in Knott County. Parker Hobson

Gibson, who lived on family land before the rains came, wants to leave. It’s just that the way out isn’t apparent yet. Many rentals won’t take so big a family. It doesn’t help that many of their identity documents were lost to the flood, making the search that much harder. She got some help from FEMA, but said the money went too quickly. 

A caseworker helps navigate a labyrinth of agencies designed to help Kentucky flood victims, and they’ve put in applications at a grab bag of charities building housing. One has told Gibson her case looks promising, but she’s still waiting to hear a final word. Other applications are so long and such a crapshoot — one ran 40 pages, for a loan she’d struggle to pay back — that she’s too tired to put them together.

“It’s a big what-if game,” she said. “They’re not reaching out to you. You’re expected to call them.”

Meanwhile, ATV riders sometimes ride through to the park, kicking up dust and leaving a mess in the restrooms. Gibson tries not to resent them. It’s not their fault she’s stuck.

“While it’s great and, like, they’re having a good time, it’s not a great time for us because we feel like we’re stuck here and we’re, like, an inconvenience and we’re in the way,” she said. “We don’t want to bother anybody.”

As extreme weather intensifies due to climate change, stories like Gibson’s will play out in more and more communities. Though eastern Kentucky hadn’t flooded like this since 1957, parts of the state could face 100-year floods every 25 years or so. About half of all homes in the region hit hardest by last year’s floods — Knott, Letcher, Perry, and Breathitt counties — are at risk for extreme flooding. 

Some residents worry that the legacies of surface mining – lost topsoil and tree cover, a ruined water table, and waste retention dams like the one that may have failed near Lost Creek, drowning it – will make communities more vulnerable to floods, compounding the effects of generational poverty and aging rural infrastructure. Housing needs to be built, and some say it needs to go up on the only high, flat land available — that is, the very same strip mines that contributed mightily to this whole problem in the first place.

High ground, especially former strip mines, in the region tends to be off limits. A study completed in the 1970s showed that most of what is available belongs to land companies, coal companies, and other private interests. About 1.5 million acres is believed to have been mined. Many of those sites are too remote to be of much use for housing, though, and those that are closer to town typically have seen commercial development. As the flood recovery has dragged on, though, some of these entities have decided to donate some of what they hold so that there might be more residential construction. Other parcels have been donated by landowning families with cozy relationships to the coal industry, though that hasn’t always gone smoothly.

Chris Doll is vice president of the Housing Development Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to building single-family homes for low-income families. It was beating the drum of eastern Kentucky’s crisis long before the flood. The situation is even more dire now. Without an influx of new construction, he argues, the local economy will spiral even further.  

On an overcast and gentle day in June, Doll walked around a former strip mine turned planned development in Knott County called Chestnut Ridge. It sits near a four-lane highway and close to other communities, with ready access to water lines. The Alliance is working with other nonprofits to build around 50 houses here, along with, it hopes, 50 to 150 more on each of two similar sites in neighboring counties. A $13 million state flood relief fund has committed $1 million to the projects.  

a man in a t shirt and khakis in a field
Chris Doll stands in a field in Eastern Kentucky.
Grist / Katie Myers

The road leading to what could, in just a few years, be a bustling neighborhood opened up into a bafflingly flat landscape, almost like a wooded savanna. It was wide open to the sunshine, unlike the deep hollers and coves that characterize this part of eastern Kentucky. To an untrained eye, it appeared to be a healthy ecosystem. Look closer, though, and one sees the mix of vegetation coal companies use to restore the land: invasive autumn olive, scrubby pine trees, and tall grasses, planted mostly for erosion control.  

Still, it’s ideal land for housing, and most folks around here won’t mind the landscaping. Doll said the number of people who need help is overwhelming, and his team can’t help everybody. But they hope to build as many houses as they can.

“There are so many people that have so many needs that I am of the mindset that I will help the person in front of me,” Doll said. “And now we can turn them into homeowners. If that’s what they want.”

On a hillside overlooking another mine site, Doll and I walked up to the ridge to see if we could get a better view of the terrain. It is covered in a thicket of brush, too dense to see beyond. The path wound toward a small clearing, where worn headstones and stone angels sit undisturbed. Family cemeteries are protected from strip mining, and this one was clearly still cared for; the bouquets at the angels’ feet were fresh. The lifecycle of coal had come and made its mark and gone. 

Chestnut ridge is a former strip mine turned planned development in Knott County, Kentucky. Grist / Katie Myers

“You can see where they cut out,” Doll said. “They just entirely destroyed that mountain. It’s such a wild thing to think that strip mine land is going to be part of the solution.” 

Doll thinks of it as a post-apocalyptic landscape, or maybe mid-apocalyptic, ripe for renewal, but still carrying the weight of its past. The land was gifted by people whose money was made from coal, after all.

“And, you know, it’s great that they’re giving land back,” he said. “I would prefer if it was still mountains, but if it was mountains, we couldn’t build houses on it. So yeah, it’s ridiculously complex.” He shrugged.  “Bigger heads than mine.”

He squelched across the mud and back to the car. In the summer heat, two turkeys retreated into the shade of a scrubby pine grove, their tracks etched in the mud alongside hoofprints, probably from deer and elk. The place was alive, if not exactly the way it was before.  

The former strip mine developments are financed in part by the Team Kentucky flood relief fund created by the governor’s office. Beyond the four projects already in motion, eastern Kentucky housing nonprofits like the Housing Development Alliance are working with landowners, local officials and the governor to secure more land in hopes of building hundreds more homes. 

“Working together – and living for one another – we’ve weathered this devastating storm,” Governor Andy Beshear said last week during a press conference outlining progress made since the flood. “Now, a year later, we see the promise of a brighter future, one with safer homes and communities as well as new investments and opportunities.”

That said, nothing is fully promised just yet, and the process could take years. The homes will be owner-occupied and residents will carry a mortgage, but housing advocates hope to lower as many barriers to ownership as possible and help families with grants and loans. Applications for the developments are expected to open within a couple of months. The plans, thus far, call for an “Appalachian look and feel” that combines an old-style coal camp town and a suburban subdivision to create single-family homes clustered in wooded hollers. Though some might argue that density should be the priority, local housing nonprofits want developments that feel like home to people used to having a bit of land for themselves. 

The Housing Development Alliance has built houses on mined land before, and some of them are among those given to 12 flood survivors thus far. Alongside other entities, it has also spent the year mucking, gutting, and repairing salvageable homes, often upgrading them with flood-safe building protocols.  Even that comparatively small number was made possible through support from a hodgepodge of local and regional nonprofits, and the labor of the Alliance’s carpenters has been supplanted with volunteer help. 

Though the Knott County Sportsplex, a recreation center built on the mineland next to Chestnut Ridge, appears to be sinking and cracking a bit, Doll said houses are too light to cause that kind of trouble.  Nonetheless, geotechnical engineers from the University of Kentucky, he said, are studying the land to make sure there won’t be any unpleasant surprises. The plan is for the neighborhoods to be mapped out onto the landscape with roads and sewer lines and streetlights, all of which require the involvement of myriad county departments and private companies; then the Alliance and its partners will come in and do what they do best, ideally as further disaster funding comes down the line. 

Still, all involved say that there’s no way they can build enough houses to fill the need.

A flood-damaged building sits vacant in Lost Creek, Kentucky
A flood-damaged building sits vacant in Lost Creek, Kentucky.
Grist / Katie Myers

More federal funding will arrive soon through the U.S. Housing and Urban Development disaster relief block grant program. It allocated $300 million to the region, and organizations like the Kentucky River Area Development District are gathering the information needed to prove to the feds the scale of the region’s need. Some housing advocates are critical of this process, though. 

Noah Patton, a senior policy analyst with the Low-Income Housing Coalition, said HUD grants are too unpredictable to forge long-term plans. “One reason it’s exceptionally complicated is because it is not permanently authorized,” he said. A president can declare a disaster and direct the agency to release funds, but Congress must approve the disbursement. Although it all went smoothly in Kentucky’s case, the unpredictability means there are no standing rules on how to allocate and spend funding.

“Oftentimes, you’re kind of starting from scratch every time there’s a disaster,” Patton said.  

Local development districts, such as the Kentucky River Area Development District, are holding meetings around the affected counties, urging people to fill out surveys so it can collect the data needed to apply for funding from the federal program. And HUD is overhauling its efforts to address criticism of unequal distribution of funds. Still, the people who might benefit from these block grants may not see the homes they’ll underwrite go up for a few more years, Patton said. 

On the state level, housing advocates have been pushing the legislature for more money to flow toward permanent housing. Many also say the combined state, FEMA and HUD assistance isn’t nearly enough. One analysis by Eric Dixon of the Ohio River Valley Institute, a nonprofit think tank, pegged the cost of a complete recovery at around $453 million for a “rebuild where we were” approach and more than $957 million to incorporate climate-resilient building techniques and, where necessary, move people to higher ground.

Sasha Gibson has heard rumors of the new developments. She’s somewhat interested insofar as they can get her out of limbo. Until she sees these houses going up, though, they’ll be just another vague promise in a year of vague promises that have gotten her nowhere but a dusty ATV park. It’s been, to put it bluntly, a terrible year, and the moments where the family’s had hope have only made the letdowns feel worse. 

 “I have no hope to rely on other people,”  she said. “I don’t want to give somebody else that much power over me. Because then you’ll just wind up disappointed and sad. And it’s even sadder when you have all of these little eyes looking at you.”

As Gibson waits, others long ago decided to remain where they were and rebuild either because they could or because there wasn’t another choice. 

Tony Potter, who’s lived on family land in the city of Fleming-Neon since birth, has spent the past year in what amounts to a tool shed. It’s cramped and doesn’t even have a sink, but the land under it belongs to him, not a landlord or bank. It’s a piece of the world that he owns, and because a monthly disability check is his only income, he doesn’t have much else and probably couldn’t afford a mortgage or rent. Asked if he’d consider moving, he scoffed.

“You put yourself in my shoes,” he said. 

a man with tattoos sits on steps
Tony Potter, who’s lived on family land in the city of Fleming-Neon since birth, says he won’t consider leaving. Grist / Katie Myers

He can’t believe FEMA would offer to buy someone’s land, or that anyone would take the government up on the offer. “I mean, my God, why in the hell you wanna buy the property and then tell them they can’t live on it?” he said. “What kind of fool would sell their property? Why would you want to sell something and then go rent something?”

James Hall, who also lives in Neon, lost everything but is staying put, in part because he doesn’t think it’ll happen again. The words “thousand-year flood” must mean something, he said. But that didn’t keep him from putting his new trailer a foot and a half higher just in case. He might bump that up to 3 feet when he has a minute. Through it all, he’s kept his dry sense of humor. “If the flood comes again,” he said, “I’m gonna get me a houseboat.”

That kind of outlook buoys Ricky Burke, the town’s mayor. He said the community’s used to flooding – the city sits in a floodplain at the intersection of the Wrights Fork and Yonta Fork creeks – but last year’s was by far the worst. Water and mud plowed through town with enough force to shatter windows. People went without water and electricity for months in some places. A few buildings, like the burger drive-in on the corner at the edge of town, have been repaired, but others remain gaunt and empty. 

Still, Burke, a diesel mechanic who was elected in November, is confident the town will pick itself up. He’s heard talk that Neon might need to move some of its buildings, that a return to form simply isn’t viable. He’s dismissive of such a notion. What Neon needs, he believes, is a big party, and he’s planning to celebrate the community’s resilience with flowers, music, and a gathering on the anniversary of the flood.

“These people in Neon ain’t going nowhere,” he said.

a sign says neon above an awning
A sign hangs above Neon’s main street.
Grist / Katie Myers

Some folks, through persistence, hard work, and a bit of luck, have moved into new homes.

Linda and Danny Smith got theirs from Christian Aid Ministries, a Mennonite disaster relief group, though construction started a couple months later than planned because it ended up taking awhile to figure out exactly where the floodplain was. It was built on their land at the end of a Knott County road called, whimsically, Star Wars Way. According to the Smiths, the group, which was from out of state, nearly ran out of time before having to return home and only just finished the job before leaving. They left so quickly that Danny Smith said he still needed to paint the doors. He isn’t complaining, though. Other homes were left half-done, their new owners left searching high and low for someone to finish the job. 

Although grateful for the help that put a roof over his head, Smith got a little tired of dealing with all the people who came to heal his body, his spirit, and his mind even as he completed mounds of paperwork and made calls to anyone he thought might help. “One guy, he kept insisting that I needed to go talk to someone,” he recalled. “And I said ‘who?’”

a man in woman stand in a kitchen
Linda and Danny Smith stand in the kitchen of their new home. Parker Hobson

The man suggested that Danny talk to a therapist. He laughed at the recollection. It was a laugh heard often around here, the sound of a tired survivor who’s already assessed their own hierarchy of needs many times over. “I said, ‘You know, I don’t need nothing done with my mind. I need a home.”

Despite the frustration, the Smiths are piecing their lives back together, a little bit higher up off the ground than they were before. Christine White is praying for a similar outcome, and thinks she can finally see it on the horizon. The occasional nightmare aside, she’s felt pretty good these days.

FEMA gave her $1,900 awhile back to demolish her house and closed her case, leaving her high and dry. She called housing organization after housing organization until CORE, a national nonprofit that assists underserved communities, agreed to build a small home on a piece of land she owns in Floyd County. Construction began earlier this month. White, who spends her time volunteering at a local food bank, calls it a miracle. “You just gotta go where the Lord leads you,” she says. But it’s not built yet, so she’s trying not to count her chickens.

Parker Hobson contributed to this story.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Old nightmares and new dreams mark the year since Kentucky’s devastating flood on Jul 27, 2023.

How will the ‘Flood of 2023’ rank in history — and does it foretell the future?

The late photographer Leslie Jones captured this glass negative of flooding in Bellows Falls in November 1927. Image from the Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.

The good news: Last week’s statewide storm was no match for Vermont’s “Great Flood of 1927,” a 36-hour downpour that economists estimate would have damaged up to $4 billion in property today.

And the bad: Although officials are still tallying the impact of the most recent deluge, the collective cost could rival 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene — and be a sign of things to come, according to a just-released national study.

“Make no mistake, the devastation and flooding we’re experiencing across Vermont is historic and catastrophic,” Gov. Phil Scott said last week of water that resulted in one confirmed fatality as well as road and business closures from Albany, Barton and Craftsbury in the Northeast Kingdom to Wardsboro, Weathersfield and Weston in southern Vermont.

Many Vermonters may judge the present destruction against that of past natural disasters. The Flood of 1927 remains the worst, having killed 84 people, while Irene claimed seven lives, state records show. But experts fear the toll of future storms could be worse.

A newly published study by national researchers at the nonpartisan, nonprofit First Street Foundation has found the number of Vermont properties at flood risk is three times as many as what the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers the figure to be for 1-in-100-year events.

In the state capital of Montpelier and surrounding Washington County, for example, formerly once-a-century floods are now considered to be 1-in-62-year events, the foundation is set to report on its website Risk Factor. The study also raises the region’s total of high-risk properties from 1,400 as categorized federally to more than 4,700.

“In environmental engineering, there is a concept called stationarity, which assumes that today is going to be like yesterday, and tomorrow is going to be like yesterday,” Dr. Ed Kearns, the foundation’s chief data officer, said in a statement. “This concept used to work, but with a changing environment it’s a poor assumption and no longer does.”

E. T. Houston Studio produced this postcard of Montpelier flooding at the corner of State and Main streets on Nov. 4, 1927. Image from the Norwich University Archives

1927: ‘The greatest catastrophe’

Then again, yesterday shattered precedent, too. The year 1927 is remembered for such advances as the first talking motion picture, first Model A automobile and first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic — all while Vermont maintained fewer than 100 miles of asphalt roads, with the rest being dirt or gravel under local control.

“The rational Vermonter has been of the opinion that hard roads would ruin the state,” a Chicago Tribune reporter wrote in 1928 of the reluctance to pave the way for outsiders to roll in.

That spelled mud when up to 15 inches of rain fell for 36 hours Nov. 2-4, 1927, the late historians Deborah Pickman Clifford and Nicholas Clifford detail in their 2007 book “The Troubled Roar of the Waters’: Vermont in Flood and Recovery, 1927-1931.”

The storm, deemed “the greatest catastrophe in Vermont’s history” by then-Gov. John Weeks, destroyed 1,258 bridges and countless more miles of road and rails, state records show. That slowed or stopped delivery of food and other household essentials and forced farmers to churn whatever milk they couldn’t ship or store into butter, as only 30 percent had electricity before the storm, let alone refrigeration.

Three Massachusetts travelers, trying to drive to Burlington, stopped in Montpelier to ask directions, period newspapers recounted. The man they met told them it would take two weeks.

“Do you live here?” one of the tourists was quoted in the press.

“I guess I do — I am the governor,” Weeks reportedly replied, spurring the travelers to abandon their car and walk 40 miles from the capital to the state’s largest city. 

They weren’t alone. Historians recall how an Army captain had to ride a horse from Colchester’s Fort Ethan Allen over Smugglers Notch to offer the military’s help to Montpelier, while a Central Vermont Railway brakeman walked, waded and swam 50 miles to Essex Junction to report train troubles in Bethel.

Few complained. When then-U.S. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover surveyed Vermont on behalf of then-President Calvin Coolidge, Hoover’s car had to stop in Waterbury because of muddy roads.

“We have nothing left,” one local was said to have told Hoover, “but plenty of courage.”

Long before the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a special session of the 1927 Legislature approved what was then an $8.5 million bond issue to not only repair but also improve roads.

“There was no point in simply restoring roads that would once again be vulnerable to catastrophe, that even before the flood had already been inadequate, and whose maintenance costs would be greater than if they were rebuilt in a more durable form,” the Cliffords wrote in their book.

Vermont would spend what was then $12 million on highways (including a then-unprecedented $2.6 million federal grant) the first two of four years of rebuilding, state records show. The governor, using the disaster to overturn a tradition of one-term officeholders, ran for reelection in 1928 and persuaded the Legislature to approve another 125 miles of “hard road.” 

The state’s current highway system was born.

The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore, a Vermont native, broadcasts live from Brattleboro on Aug. 30, 2011, after Tropical Storm Irene ravaged the Whetstone Studio for the Arts. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

2011: ‘Irene was just the appetizer …’

Vermont faced its second biggest test on Aug. 28, 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene crumbled more than 500 miles of highway, closing such north-south arteries as Route 100 — the state’s longest — and east-west corridors including Route 9 linking Bennington and Brattleboro, and Route 4 connecting Rutland and White River Junction.

Irene’s statistics, though not as steep as those in 1927, nonetheless were staggering. The 2011 storm dumped up to 11 inches of rain, destroyed nearly $750 million in property (a figure equal to almost two-thirds of that year’s state general fund budget) and damaged 200 bridges, 450 utility poles, 600 historic buildings, 1,000 culverts, 2,400 road segments, 3,500 homes and 20,000 acres of farmland.

In Danby, Irene washed away the old home of the late Nobel Prize-winning writer Pearl Buck just hours after the town christened its new artifact-filled historical society. Rockingham watched the water carry off its nearly 150-year-old Bartonsville Covered Bridge — an act captured and replayed on YouTube a half-million times.

Most expensively, Irene gutted the 1,500-employee Waterbury State Office Complex — ironically, the home of Vermont Emergency Management. Crews spent $130 million to restore the campus (with all occupied space now a half-foot above the 500-year flood mark) in the state government’s biggest-ever construction project.

Just as the 1927 flood spurred the state to modernize its infrastructure, Irene sparked more government changes. Many cities and towns bought out property owners in flood zones to avert future problems, while the state built stronger roads and bridges, updated its laws so planning addresses resilience and river corridor protection, and launched a Flood Ready Vermont website to educate the public about its programs. 

“When the flooding comes, no one can stop that, but there’s work we can do to be ready for the next thing,” Neale Lunderville, the state’s former Irene recovery officer who’s now head of Vermont Gas Systems, said on the storm’s 10th anniversary in 2021. “Irene was just the appetizer for the main course that’s yet to come if we don’t buckle down and start making changes.”

a goose swims in a flooded street.
A goose swims along a flooded Main Street in Montpelier on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

2023: ‘Historical data no longer capture the threats’

The most recent storm dropped as much as an average two months of rain, with a state high of 9.2 inches in Calais, according to the National Weather Service. But infrastructure improvements after Irene lessened damage to transportation and utility lines.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation, which required four months to repair more than 500 miles of highway ravaged in 2011, already has reopened 90% of the 100 state roads closed by last week’s storm, the agency has reported.

Green Mountain Power, which provides electricity to three-quarters of the state, reported 140,650 total outages during Irene, compared to 52,500 during this month’s storm.

Even so, the most recent flooding has sparked coast-to-coast headlines. Reporters have quoted scientists who blame saturated ground, mountains that channel water into river valleys — and climate change.

“As temperatures rise, the air can hold more moisture, which can mean more severe rainfall, bringing worse flooding,” The New York Times summed up the situation.

But many current models don’t account for such shifts. The National Weather Service bases its predictions for extreme rainfall more on past observations. Likewise, the new research from the First Street Foundation estimates the number of properties at flood risk is significantly larger than what FEMA says.

This month’s Vermont storm has turned the latter study’s release into national news.

“Historic flooding,” The Washington Post wrote in connecting the research to current events, “was not a product of any tropical system — laying bare how flooding predictions based on historical data no longer capture the threats posed by extreme rainfall as the planet warms and the air carries more moisture.”

The latest storm also has highlighted the need for continued investment in long-term planning.

“I have seen an increase in records being broken, records that have stood for decades or even a century,” U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., told reporters last week. “We really need to start to better understand what it’s going to look like 10 or 20 years from now, so we can use our mitigation dollars to help reduce those impacts and help these systems be more resilient.”

Disclosure: Neale Lunderville is a board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization of VTDigger.

Read the story on VTDigger here: How will the ‘Flood of 2023’ rank in history — and does it foretell the future?.

Vermont’s dairy industry saved majority of milk supply during catastrophic storm

many bottles of milk are lined up on a conveyor belt.
many bottles of milk are lined up on a conveyor belt.
Bottles of milk. Photo via Adobe Stock

E.B. Flory’s voice broke several times on Friday describing how exceptional dedication in different parts of the dairy supply chain kept milk losses to a minimum this week.

Despite catastrophic flooding and road damage across the state, most of what Vermont’s farmers and their herds produced made it to a processing facility, the dairy section chief at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets said, even if it was not their usual one.

“Our cows, goats and sheep in the state, they don’t stop milking, and we have to get that milk, we have to get where it needs to be to be processed,” she said. “This has been a very stressful week, but we’ve had a lot of unexpected things come together that made things work in a successful way.”

The amount of milk that farmers and processors have had to dump was much less than everyone feared on Monday, agency Secretary Anson Tebbetts said during a press event on Friday. There also had been no reports of large-scale loss of livestock to flooding, he said.

Milk buyers within Vermont and in other states did not expect to see the volume of milk that arrived after news of the deluge and its aftermath had spread, Flory said. But from the farmers to the milk haulers to staff at processing plants and her own staff, many people worked around the clock to save the majority of the supply.

“We really only had a handful of instances where milk couldn’t get picked up because farms were inaccessible,” said Amber Sheridan, spokesperson for Cabot Creamery and the Agri-mark dairy cooperative. “It was really a small volume, given the magnitude of flooding.”

Flory and Sheridan gave milk hauling companies and their drivers a great deal of credit for that. 

With main state routes blocked, it took much longer for haulers to drive their regular routes, and more trucks and drivers had to be brought in quickly. Haulers and their dispatchers, who Flory compared to air traffic controllers, worked long hours and communicated frequently about which routes were creating the greatest difficulties. Flory said she was able to communicate those locations directly to the Agency of Transportation, which put them onto the priority list. 

For Agri-mark and Cabot, the biggest challenge was the closure of Route 2, which largely reopened Thursday afternoon, Sheridan said. When a truck could not reach the Cabot processing plant, the driver would be rerouted to Middlebury, or, when Interstate 89 closed on Monday, down to a plant in West Springfield, Massachusetts, so the milk cargo would not be wasted. 

In the background, there were the new larger, more energy-efficient bulk tanks that many farmers across the state were able to buy as part of a federal grant through the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, based at the state agency. Farms that had upgraded were able to keep milk cool between pickups for three days, rather than two. 

“That was a really big deal,” Flory said. “They made a difference.”

An emergency waiver from the Food and Drug Administration allowed processors a bit more leeway in how long they could hold milk before dumping as well. Product testing still ensured consumer safety, she said.

Beyond that, it was all about the people. 

“It’s been all hands on deck with many different sectors trying to get this done,” Flory said. 

Haulers were incredibly dedicated, creatively trying to get to farms in whatever way possible, she said. “They had their own crises at home, you know. Their basements were flooded, and they were on the road getting the milk,” Flory said. 

And it wasn’t just drivers. In the Northeast Kingdom, agency milk inspector Eric Perkins decided he would help them, going ahead in his car to the next farm to scout the best route to avoid backups and turnarounds. That initiative was so successful that the state’s other inspectors adopted the practice in the other corners of the state. 

“He stepped up and did something really innovative that we’ve never done before, and it really worked,” Flory said. 

Evaluating flooded crops and fields

While damaged roads were the immediate crisis to overcome, they are becoming more passable by the day. Now farmers are turning to evaluating flooded crops, hayfields and stored bales to determine how much damage the rains caused to what their livestock needs to eat. 

“In our hilly state, some of our most fertile farmland lies in the river valleys,” Tebbetts said at the Friday morning event. Across Vermont, “countless fields of corn, hay, vegetables, fruit and pasture were swamped and buried,” he said.

Heather Darby, an agronomist with the University of Vermont Extension service, is visiting many of them. On Friday, she traveled from Swanton to Hardwick by car to lend her expert eye. She helped write two different informational sheets for farmers on flooded corn and flooded forage.

So far she has been pleased to see that most of the corn and soybean fields she has examined appear likely to recover. Unlike Tropical Storm Irene, which occurred in late summer, those crops are younger and should regrow and bounce back. 

“Corn does have the ability to sort of stand itself back up, so it’s really a watch-and-see game for a lot of the fields right now,” Darby said. 

Hayfields are another story. They are her biggest concern right now. 

Most farmers had been waiting to take the second or third cut of this year’s hay until after the latest bout of rain. Where a field was flooded, that entire cutting is lost. 

“They’ve got to chop it off and get it off the field so that those grasses can regrow,” Darby said. 

If farmers want to try to save it, the crop should be stored separately from non-flooded silage and tested repeatedly for bacteria and toxins produced by fungus or mold. 

At the farm she was headed to in Hardwick, flooded by the Lamoille River, even that may not be possible. 

“The fields have so much debris on them, and there is so much silt on the fields, so we are not sure if the grass will die,” she said. She is going to try to advise the owners on whether they need to replant entirely. 

For bales and other stored silage that got wet, the future is questionable. Some may be usable, but also need to be repeatedly tested. If hay was fully submerged for several days, it’s unlikely that it is safe for animals to eat, even if wrapped, Darby said. 

Jane Clifford, who runs an eighth-generation dairy farm in Starksboro with her husband, said her farm was spared, but she has close friends in the region who had hundreds of active acres underwater. 

While the losses are large, and dairy farming has unique challenges, farmers are aware they are just one of many small businesses who are reeling right now, she said. 

“It’s frustrating. It’s hard. But for those of us in the industry, it’s a business,” Clifford said. “I look at all the businesses in downtown Montpelier or Barre that were impacted. I look at it that we are all kind of in the same boat.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Vermont’s dairy industry saved majority of milk supply during catastrophic storm.