How will the ‘Flood of 2023’ rank in Vermont history?

The storm was no match for Vermont’s “Great Flood of 1927,” a 36-hour deluge would have damaged up to $4 billion in property today. But the latest rainfall could be a sign of things to come.
This story first appeared in VTDigger.
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.
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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.”
Courtesy of Norwich University Archives E. T. Houston Studio produced this postcard of Montpelier flooding at the corner of State and Main streets on Nov. 4, 1927.
Courtesy of Norwich University Archives
E. T. Houston Studio produced this postcard of Montpelier flooding at the corner of State and Main streets on Nov. 4, 1927.

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.”
File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger 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
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.

The state’s current highway system was born.

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 businesses, 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.”
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,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters during a visit to Vermont 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.)