by Kevin Ellis
The city of Montpelier is in the midst of a reckoning.
A month after two rivers breached their banks and flooded the Downtown, we are left to wonder what comes next. Landlords and business owners have been figuring it out on their own, city officials are trying to do their day jobs and address flood recovery, a state legislature and governor are taking steps with grant money, and a congressional delegation is being asked to fill the shoes of Patrick Leahy and deliver the millions of dollars necessary to get this town – and the state – on its feet.
I have spent 30 years in and around politics as a reporter, lobbyist, and now podcaster/blogger/radio host. I watched the flood of 1992. It was a different beast to be sure, but the damage was similar. We asked the same questions back then: how do we rebuild? Will downtown ever recover?
But that flood was an ice jam-up against a bridge that backed up the Winooski River into downtown. This was a rainstorm that never seemed to stop. And if you believe climate forecaster Roger Hill at WDEV Radio, which I do, this could happen again. And it could happen tomorrow.
So how do we save the Downtown, and therefore the city, a place people visit from the world over for its authentic real-worldness and where families of all kinds live real life at a small city scale?
The community meetings being held by the Montpelier Foundation/Montpelier Alive are a great first step. Facilitator Paul Costello is a city treasure for his calm demeanor and professionalism. The first meeting was a necessary opportunity for people to vent, say thank you, see neighbors, and be there for each other.
The second meeting on Tuesday at the Statehouse will get into the nitty-gritty of what happened and where we go next. This is another excellent step.
As we head into the next meeting, I believe our next step should be tasking a new entity with determining what happened, why it happened, and give recommendations for making Montpelier more resilient. It is unfair to ask the city government to do this. A city manager and City Council set up for the 20th century is too busy plowing snow and fixing roads to do the necessary innovating to harden the city for the future.
I have proposed that the governor appoint a blue-ribbon commission to address these needs statewide but Montpelier should have its own entity charged with flood recovery and designing the future.
For my money, it should be the Montpelier Foundation and Montpelier Alive, together known as Vermont Strong. They have stepped forward in this crisis and done great work. They are a home for money from the state, federal government, and charitable foundations. It has leadership from professionals like Sarah Jarvis, John Hollar, and Katie Trautz. That group could hire a researcher/consultant to write a report for the city council and all of us.
That report should be a comprehensive examination of why this flood happened and what steps the city should take to make sure it doesn’t destroy our Downtown again. It should be a roadmap for the future, outlining how Montpelier can adapt and become resilient in the face of the coming weather events that threaten the city.
This group could take a variety of actions short-term and long-term that will benefit the city. They could hold public hearings, do research, talk to their neighbors, and issue a series of recommendations. Among those actions could be:
- Call the Dutch. Their country has been living beneath sea level and dealing with flooding for centuries. The city of Rotterdam was flooded in 1953. That country is filled with engineering firms, city planners, and think tanks that specialize in helping cities adapt to flooding.
- Figure out what worked. The Hunger Mountain Food Coop, the transit center, and the district heat plant avoided flooding. Why is that? Flood mitigation measures taken since 1992 seemed to work pretty well. Double down on those measures.
- Figure out the housing equation. We desperately need to build housing. The legislature passed a massive housing bill encouraging the construction of new housing downtown. That now seems counter-intuitive. But it’s not if we build it well – higher and with flood control measures.
- Fill in the basements. Decide, once and for all, that the basements are off-limits. Put the mechanicals on the roof or on the upper floors. The city doesn’t necessarily have to mandate that the basements should not be used. But it should issue a fair warning. If you use your basement, you are on your own.
- Encourage different construction materials on the first floors. Masonry and concrete – yes! Wood and sheetrock – No!
- Use the district heating system.
- I was shocked to learn how many buildings in downtown are NOT connected to the district heating plant. The city spent millions on that plant that burns woodchips. It is there. It did not flood. It works well. Require all downtown businesses to connect to the plant for their heat. That way in another flood, they won’t lose their heating. Make connection free for property owners.
- It is no longer acceptable for Montpelier citizens and its visitors to take their lives in their hands when they get out of their car and have to climb over an icy snow bank. This situation deters shoppers and others from coming downtown. Install piping under the State Street sidewalk connected to the district heating plant that melts the snow and drains it to the river. We do this in front of the fire department and behind the governor’s office. Let’s do it downtown.
- Get the money. The various funds that have been created are a wonderful first step toward helping businesses get back on their feet. But it is nowhere near enough. This recovery will take at least 15 years and it will be very expensive. The city needs to become a model of climate adaptation and innovation so that we can attract the kind of philanthropic resources that will pay for what I list above.
- Do better at politics. I could not help but think at the first community meeting that if every single resident emailed Bernie Sanders, Peter Welch, and Becca Balint that night, we would be seeing more action. The city and its residents need to be relentless in their demand of the congressional delegation and their state senators that this will cost millions of dollars. Not SBA loans, not FEMA reimbursement. But cash.
- Let the river go. Stop fighting the water. Maximize and protect our wetlands, fields, and other areas that can absorb water. The proposal to close Montpelier High School to allow the flood waters to gather in that space, while difficult, is one example.
- Revisit the sad and reckless record of city planners of the past who allowed strip development along Memorial Drive, hemming in the river. Think about the economics of the city, not in terms of growth at all costs. But as a sustainable loop of self-reinforcing actions that attract people and businesses instead of car and truck traffic that do little to improve our quality of life. If we do that, we will be a magnet for others to come and see what we have done.
We have the expertise and the determination to do this. Now we must face ourselves in the mirror and recognize that we must innovate our way out of this or slowly wither away as so many other New England cities have done.
A special report from the Vermont Strong organization is a good first step toward understanding what happened and why and showing us the way forward for the next generation.
Kevin is the president of the Board of Directors of Downstreet Housing & Community Development, a non-profit affordable housing organization in central Vermont. He also sits on the boards of the Vermont Journalism Trust and Chelsea Green Publishing and is a mentor in the local high school’s community-based learning program.