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Rivers still rising, threatening Addison County

THE WATER WAS extremely high at the falls in downtown Middlebury on Monday. Independent photo/Steve James

EAST MIDDLEBURY/RIPTON — Looks can be deceiving.

While the county is being bathed in sunshine this Monday, the Otter Creek and the Middlebury River — along with their tributaries — will continue to swell during the next 24 hours, raising the prospect of additional flooding that could overwhelm area roads and wreak havoc on homes located near waterways.

That was the word from local emergency response officials on Monday morning, in the aftermath of yet another round of rainfall on Sunday evening that added insult to injury for thousands of Vermonters straining to keep their heads, vehicles and homes above water.

Addison County had, as of this writing, escaped some of the catastrophic flood damage that other parts of the state — such as Waterbury, Montpelier, Ludlow and Woodstock — experienced during the previous 10 days.

But Middlebury Fire Chief David Shaw, who along with other area emergency responders has been working overtime to troubleshoot and anticipate flood flareups in the county, warned that things could take a turn for the worse in Addison County during the next few days.

“I think you’re going to see historical (water) levels soon — if not today, tomorrow, for sure,” Shaw said Monday morning. “We still have a lot of water south of us that still has to pass through the Middlebury area. If you’ve traveled south recently, through Salisbury and Leicester, the ‘great swamps’ that buffer the Otter Creek are full to capacity and are pushing way out.”

Shaw and his colleagues are concerned about what will happen when that extra blast of water courses through Middlebury and reaches notorious pinch points along the Creek. One of them, he said, is off Middlebury’s Seymour Street, just before the Pulp Mill Covered Bridge leading into Weybridge. 

THE WATER RAGING beneath Pulp Mill Bridge in Middlebury on Monday.
Independent photo/Steve James

But he stressed “Anyone who lives along the river, with river property that has any structures near the Otter Creek, we’re concerned about that.”

The latest information from the town of Middlebury is that Dragon Brook Road and Creek Road — from 3 Mile Bridge Rd to the State Highway Garage — remain closed. In most cases, drivers are being cautious about staying away from water-covered roads. But the Middlebury Technical Rescue Team on July 14 rescued a man trapped in a vehicle caught in floodwaters at the intersection of Route 7 and Three Mile Bridge Road.

It’s clear Addison County officials aren’t just concerned about the Otter Creek.

The oft-restless Middlebury River was “a bit of a challenge over the weekend,” and things could get worse, according to Shaw.

It started this past Friday evening with a rainstorm that stalled over Ripton, inducing a mudslide on a slope off Route 125 in the village that uprooted and destroyed one home, while forcing the evacuation of a dozen others in the vicinity. More on that later in this story.

Alison Joseph Dickinson, Ripton’s town administrator and clerk, said the damage was particularly pronounced on the stretch of Route 125 between Old Town Road and Goshen Road. In addition to the road damage, a section of guardrail had become detached, Dickinson noted. Workers were tending to that section this morning, July 17. As of this writing, Route 125 was back open, though relegated to a single lane in some spots.

While most public roads in Ripton are now open, at least one private one isn’t. Billings Farm Road, located off Natural Turnpike Road, became impassable this weekend after floodwaters took out a small bridge. Loss of the bridge has created a nightmare for six families that reside on the road. There is a very narrow, primitive escape road through the woods that can only be used by small vehicles, according to Robin Seguin, who with husband Todd live on Billings Farm Road.

“It’s very stressful,” she said of the current situation.

The affected families are unsure of what, if any, rebuilding aid that might be available through FEMA, the state or grants. Since it’s a private road, the town of Ripton owes no financial responsibility for its repairs and maintenance. Per the advice of the local selectboard, Billings Farm Road residents have created a GoFundMe page to generate donations for repairs. The goal is $15,000.

Just a month ago, some Billings Farm Road residents invested in eight truckloads of gravel to fortify the road. Now they face a bill for additional gravel and a new bridge.

Meanwhile, the Seguins and their neighbors are concerned that fire and rescue vehicles won’t be able access their homes until repairs are made.

“It’s overwhelming right now,” Seguin said of the road/bridge dilemma.

As bad as things are for the Sequins and their neighbors, they’re even worse for Chris and Amber Poploski. Theirs was the home lost to the July 14 mudslide. 

CHRIS AND AMBER Poploski’s Ripton home was carried down the hill during the mudslide on Friday night. Here it is on Monday. Independent photo/Steve James

Ripton Selectperson Laurie Cox told VT Digger the mudslide occurred at around 2 a.m. on Saturday, just as emergency crews were going door to door to evacuate homes due to the cresting Middlebury River. Ripton Fire Chief Chris Pike had been talking to Chris Poploski when “the hillside collapsed, and the house owner’s truck got pushed right into the fire truck, and our fire chief was standing right in between them,” Cox told VT Digger. “Fortunately, it didn’t quite come to where he would have been squished, really… I mean it literally could have killed him.”

The Poploskis spent the rest of the night at an emergency shelter.

Sara Thorpe, Amber’s sister, gave the community an update on the tremendous hardship the Poploskis are going through in wake of the loss of their home. Amber and the family’s pets were in the home at the time of the mudslide, according to Thorpe, who said that all humans and animals were thankfully accounted for after the disaster. Still, Amber hurt her ankle while jumping from the deck of the home.

“My sister had to throw two of her dogs out the window,” Thorpe recounted.

Thorpe has established a GoFundMe page to help her sister’s family rebuild — hopefully, somewhere else in Ripton. The GoFundMe has a goal of $75,000. As of this writing, contributors had chipped in a total of $11,550.

Friday’s storm didn’t limit its damage to Ripton. The rainfall made a juggernaut out of an already chaotic Middlebury River, propelling it down the mountain into East Middlebury, pummeling its banks and adjacent Route 125.

It was at around 1:30 a.m. on Saturday that East Main Street resident Karin Gottshall, who resides just east of the Waybury Inn, heard what she called “the scariest sounds I’ve heard” emanating from the nearby Middlebury River.

Gottshall thought it was simply rolling thunder.

“I went out on my porch and realized it was the sound of huge boulders rolling downstream,” she recalled. “My house was shaking; it was really dramatic.”

Middlebury firefighters recommended folks living along the river in East Middlebury evacuate. Gottshall complied, taking her beloved pups with her to sleep the rest of the night on her office floor at Middlebury College.

“I was glad to have somewhere else to be,” she said.

Gottshall actually started feeling the effects of the flooding last Tuesday, July 11. That’s when her basement began to flood. It got worse with Friday’s storm.

“Even with the pumps going, the basement filled again,” she said.

Gottshall is looking at a some potentially costly repairs. She believes her home sustained some foundation issues, in addition to water-related damage. She said her heart goes out to her neighbors, who lost a big chunk of their yard to the raging river. She hopes the neighborhood will qualify for state and federal aid, through the recent disaster declaration.

“I’ve learned a lot about preparedness in the past few weeks,” Gottshall said.

Emergency responders in Middlebury are crossing their fingers for the best but are prepared for the worst as they stare down the barrel of a burgeoning Otter Creek and a weather forecast that includes chances for more rainfall Tuesday and through the end of this week and beyond. 

Fortunately, the county has some experienced helpers. An eight-person crew with Michigan-TF1 Swiftwater Rescue was on alert at Middlebury Fire Department Station 1 on Monday. The crew, made up of emergency responders from the Southwest Michigan area, is equipped to handle water rescues, searches, welfare checks and other emergencies.

THE MIDDLEBURY FIRE Department during the past few days has been hosting an eight-person crew affiliated with Michigan-TF1 Swiftwater Rescue. That crew has been helping with flood-related emergencies — including rescues — throughout the state, including Addison County. Pictured here (L-R) are Michigan crew members Dan Dawe, Chris Belanger, Shaun Patterson, Dave Potter, Shadd Whitehead, Tim Andrews, David Karakuc and Hans Sievert.
Independent photo/John Flowers

Shaw knows it’s great to have excellent backup, but of course is hoping they — and Middlebury Technical Rescue — won’t have much work to do. That would mean that Mother Nature has shown some mercy.

It should be noted that Middlebury Technical Rescue has also been out helping in other areas with more serious flooding. Shaw, his colleagues and some members of the Vergennes Fire Department were recently deployed to the Barre-Montpelier area. He said it was a surreal experience to be in a boat cruising through downtown Montpelier.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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