Their Vermont homes were inundated by extreme flooding. A year later, they still struggle to recover

Jul 9, 2024, 9:04 PM

Lisa Edson-Neveu, 52 poses for a portrait at her house in Montpelier, Vt., July 3, 2024 that was da...

Lisa Edson-Neveu, 52 poses for a portrait at her house in Montpelier, Vt., July 3, 2024 that was damaged by the 2023 flood. A year after catastrophic flooding inundated parts of Vermont, some homeowners are still in the throes of recovery. (AP Photo/ Dmitry Belyakov)

(AP Photo/ Dmitry Belyakov)

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A year after catastrophic flooding inundated parts of Vermont, Lisa Edson Neveu and her two teenage sons still live in their flood-wracked home, despite unrepaired damage that festers like an open wound: torn-out walls and floors, a missing ceiling in one room and a downstairs bathroom that is no more. The family’s kitchen was destroyed so they cook meals on an outdoor grill, an electric frying pan or an air fryer.

“The flood was terrible. The water was high. It was rushing off the back hillside. It was dark, it was stormy. All of this was awful but that isn’t the part that’s been really traumatic,” said Neveu, 52. “That part everybody was amazing, neighbors helped neighbors, the community helped each other. The National Guard was incredible. What has been traumatic and just beyond anything I can even explain is how awful the last year has been.”

Since last July’s flooding that left the capital city of Montpelier under waist-high water, it’s been “a battle with insurance companies, the adjusters, the city, the state and FEMA and the federal government and nothing is in line with anything else,” Neveu said.

A year later, the family is still in limbo as the city determines which homes it can elevate — raise above the flood threat — or buy with funding allocated by the Legislature. But Neveu and her neighbor doubt the city will have enough money to do all the work and say there isn’t a solid plan a year after the flooding.

They are not alone. A number of Vermonters in Montpelier, nearby Barre and elsewhere around the state remain in the throes of the flooding aftermath, waiting to hear whether their homes will be elevated or FEMA will buy them out, a process that could take years.

In May, Vermont became the first state to enact a law requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a share of the damage caused by extreme weather fueled by climate change. Republican Gov. Phil Scott allowed the bill to become law without his signature, saying he is very concerned about the costs and outcome of the small state taking on “Big Oil” alone in what will likely be a grueling legal fight. But he acknowledged that he understands something has to be done to address the toll of climate change.

Montpelier Mayor Jack McCullough said the small city is still showing scars from the flooding.

“It’s not over for some people who are here,” he said. About a dozen homes were severely damaged.

But the city has come back in several ways, he added. Most of the downtown buildings and businesses have reopened and most of the flood victims are back in their homes, he said.

“We are moving forward but it’s still going to take more time,” he said.

Mike Miller, the city’s planning director, said Neveu’s home is at the top of the list to be elevated and if the city does one this year it will be hers unless some unforeseen technical issue arises. Most will likely happen next year, he said.

“Our goal is to save as many housing units as possible,” he said by email.

More than 3,160 homes statewide had enough damage to merit repair assistance from FEMA, according to Douglas Farnham, the state’s chief recovery officer. Towns are still doing assessments of severely damaged homes but so far 200 homeowners are interested in buyouts, he said by email.

Ed Haggett, 70, who lived next door to Neveu, is one of them.

“I lived here 47 years,” he said. “It was my retirement. I was a single parent, I raised my daughter. I sunk everything into it, paid it off and I thought I was set but I wasn’t. I lost everything.”

For the past year, Haggett has been living with his daughter and grandchildren and their significant others — seven adults — while he waits for a decision on whether Montpelier or FEMA will buy his severely damaged home. He can’t afford the cost to repair it and plans to get a loan from the Small Business Administration to build an addition onto his daughter’s home. But he said the organization lost his application in January for seven weeks, delaying the process.

Haggett’s homeowners’ insurance only paid for part of the damage, he said. For the last year, he’s been sleeping in his daughter’s den. The bureaucratic delays and uncertainty take a toll on people’s health, he said.

“It’s extremely, extremely, extremely frustrating,” Haggett said.

McCullough said the city is hoping to have enough funds to get the homes of the some of the hardest-hit people elevated or bought out, but wasn’t sure when.

In the nearby city of Barre, about 350 residential and commercial structures had some type of damage from last July’s flooding, according to city manager Nicolas Storellicastro. Sixty-two applications — both residential and commercial — have been submitted for buyouts and 10 homes have been identified for elevations, Storellicastro said.

Down the road in Berlin, last July’s flooding mangled the mobile home where Sara Morris, her husband, their three kids and his mother were living. For the last year, they’ve been staying with her mother and husband, and her brother — nine people in a three-bedroom house.

“There’s no space. We’re on top of each other,” she said. “It’s finally starting to get to where we are cracking at each other. We’re snapping, we’re arguing a little bit more.”

She has her children in counseling because of what the family has endured.

“I feel like sometimes I’ve lost kind of my kids a little bit just because of everything we’ve gone through,” she said.

Last month they were finally able to buy another mobile home and land, about 3 acres (1.21 hectare) in Middlesex. The home arrives in late August and they expect it will be ready for move-in by mid-September.

“I really wanted to make something better out of what we went through,” Morris said. “And I was determined.”

Neveu lives in a flood zone and had flood insurance but it only paid out half, she said. The house wasn’t damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and she never expected the water to reach the first floor last year.

For now, while the house is in disrepair, she and her boys have strung party lights on the walls, mounted a flat-screen TV, and hung up artwork and a beloved chiming clock. They often spend evenings out on large porch with friends and enjoy watching the wide Winooski River across the street.

The family loves seeing downtown Montpelier being rebuilt and businesses reopen but it also makes them feel left behind, she said.

“It’s so bizarrely alienating because we haven’t been able to move forward at all,” Neveu said. “We’re thrilled at any positive movement but it’s really crazy a whole year later there isn’t even a plan. And not because we haven’t tried.”

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Their Vermont homes were inundated by extreme flooding. A year later, they still struggle to recover