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WESTON — All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation met in Southern Vermont on Saturday to get a better understanding of the destruction wrought by last week’s floods — and what their constituents need.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., joined U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., for a firsthand view of the destruction wrought by a torrential downpour last Sunday and Monday.
They met at the Weston Playhouse, saw flood damage in Weston’s village center, and then toured damaged buildings in Londonderry’s north and south villages before heading to Ludlow, where floodwater and mud buried the town center and took out a train trestle.
Their tour guide for the day was Londonderry town clerk and state Rep. Kelly Pajala, who represents both towns in the Vermont House. Pajala has been personally affected by the flood; it chased her and her family from their apartment early last Monday morning.
Donna and Andy Campbell of South Londonderry, who live along the West River, were among those the delegation visited. Donna said they woke up at 6:15 a.m. Monday with the river roaring underneath their floorboards. They quickly grabbed valuables and their two cats, Charlie and Sadie, and waded through 2 feet of water to their car.
While much of the house’s contents are now in a metal trash container, Donna is grateful for the kindness her neighbors have shown. “People I barely knew have been so giving and kind — and they meant it,” she said.
In their travels on Saturday, the lawmakers saw a dam on the outskirts of Londonderry’s north village, and the erosion caused behind it when the West River leapt its banks and smothered the town in muddy storm water. They visited the Weston fire station, flooded for the fifth time in seven years.
All along the way, the lawmakers heard remarkable firsthand accounts of how frighteningly fast the flood waters rose, how town agencies need of federal dollars to rebuild, and what business owners and residents need.
They also heard many stories of neighbors helping neighbors — whether it was strangers bringing convenience store owner Barbara Jelley food and coffee, volunteers shoveling mud out of the Weston Playhouse basement, or community members offering Donna and Andy Campbell of South Londonderry food, restaurant gift cars, and places to stay.
“The support we have had from this community has been amazing,” Jelley told lawmakers.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) were already on the ground in Londonderry, going door to door. They wore bright blue polo shirts and lanyards with their official IDs, and had just finished lunch at the New American Grill in Londonderry when the delegation stopped for sandwiches and a quick huddle with town leaders.
“It was critical for all of us to see firsthand what the devastation looks like down here so we can get these towns and villages the support they need and deserve,” Balint said.
While Balint is proud of how neighbors have come together, “we know that this incredible outpouring of love and support isn’t going to help pay the bills,” she said. “That’s why we are going to turn over every stone at the federal level in order to find resources for Vermonters.”
“We have already been in touch with FEMA, the U.S. Agency of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency of Transportation, and they have been very responsive. And our three congressional office teams are working closely together to do the best constituent services to help Vermonters at this incredibly painful time.”
On the sidewalk in front of her Londonderry business, Main Street Deli co-owner Tammy Clough dabbed away tears with her maroon shirt as she told Balint, Welch and Sanders that she had been informed insurance that costs $1,000 a month would not cover the total loss of their business.
“Our home was untouched,” she said as her husband, Mike Clough, looked on. “But without a business, who knows if we will have a home.”
At the Weston Playhouse, Weston Community Theater Artistic Director Susanna Gellert brought the congressional delegation into the flood-damaged building. The group carefully descended the basement stairs to find floors coated in slick mud, and windows blown out by the force of water.
Gellert was not at the helm of Weston during Irene, but this flood was far more damaging, she said. During the basement tour, she pointed to a high water mark 2 feet above where Irene’s peak flood stage in 2011.
“Irene was really confined to the basement of the theater. This came through the first floor, the floorboard and the orchestra pit into the audience,” she said.
Also, Irene arrived in late August, when the season was winding down. This was at the height of the season, Gellert said.
For an institution still recovering from seasons lost to the pandemic, it’s a tough blow, Gellert said. She’s thankful for the community support the company has received, as well as the efforts of the cast of “Buddy” to put their talents to work with fundraising concerts.
After leaving the theater, Balint and Welch were investigating damage done to an adjacent house where Weston’s summer staff live, Sanders and Pajala struck up a conversation with Denis Benson, chair of the Weston Select Board. They stood not far from where the Lawrence Hill Road used to cross the West River — until the river washed away much of the bridge.
At the Weston fire house, deputy chief Fred Probst told Sanders “We’ve got to get out of the flood plain. … We barely got our apparatus out.”
“We’re going to be there to help,” Sanders assured him.
Later, Sanders noticed lines drawn on the station wall showing the crest of Monday’s flood, well above the line for Irene. He took out his cell phone and took a picture.
Amid the flood damage, lawmakers said the country needs to get serious about climate change.
Sanders, asked about the topic as he was about to embark for Ludlow, was direct: “We are facing an existential threat to the planet. The United States, China and other countries need to come together in the very near future to radically transform our energy system away from fossil fuel,” he said.
Asked if he believes President Joe Biden should be moving faster on climate change, Sanders said, “Yes, I do.”
“The whole debate about climate change in the denialism those days is behind us,” Welch said. “The real challenge is a lot of folks who are in the status quo are fighting to hang on and obviously we can’t afford it … what might have been a 3-inch storm becomes a 7- or 8-inch storm.”
Lawmakers are also concerned about the impact on farmers. The flood came months after a late frost devastated many fruit crops, particularly apples, and silt from the floodwaters will render some crops “a total loss,” Balint said.
“We’re looking at the differential between what farmers could get for their organic crops and they’re not going to be considered organic anymore,” because of the contaminants in flood water, she said.