After the floods: Vermont Working Communities Challenge teams prove ready to mobilize, make impact
Prior WCC work to strengthen networks, build connections pays off during flood recovery
Canoes replaced cars on submerged streets. A stove sat ruined on the sidewalk amid piles of debris. A downtown grocery store was gutted and closed indefinitely after water inundated its aisles.
These scenes from Lamoille County were snapshots of devastation from the flooding that hit Vermont in July. In many ways, it was impossible to prepare for the rains and rising rivers that buried communities statewide. But in some ways, it wasn’t.
Emily Lev of the Lamoille County Working Communities Challenge said the group’s regular work – including efforts to build new community partnerships and networks – proved critical when the floods hit.
People connected for water, food, and shelter. Volunteers were dispatched to clear away mud, soaked insulation, and other rubbish. And communities and people were steps closer to recovering from the disaster than they might have been.
“I think we’ve accomplished something here,” Lev said. “To see it play out the way it has in the last several weeks has been incredible.”
Leaders: When flooding came, existing connections were key
The Working Communities Challenge is a community-driven economic development initiative that’s under the umbrella of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Places program. In Vermont, the initiative is led by eight regional leadership teams that partner with the state, private companies, and the Boston Fed.
The program connects people across different sectors – such as business, nonprofits, municipal services, and residents – to create economic opportunity and solve problems, some chronic, some more immediate.
“You're really building that civic infrastructure to help communities think about taking care of immediate economic needs, as well as develop a long-term vision for the community that you keep driving towards,” said Stephen Michon, who leads the Boston Fed’s WCC efforts in Vermont.
Michon said there’s a particular focus on reaching the most vulnerable residents, so those most in need have a voice and a way to connect with help and resources when events like the Vermont flooding occur.
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In Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the WCC team’s work to build community connections and contacts included door-to-door canvassing of residents that started months prior to the flooding, according to team leader Jen Carlo.
The aim of the canvassing efforts was to collect contact information and opinions to start a “community hub” in Barton and Orleans. The hubs are places where people can interact, get neighbor updates, and build community-wide solutions that strengthen the local economy.
But when the floods hit, those two communities were among the state’s hardest hit. So that info came in handy in contacting people, finding out what their needs were, and who might be available to help.
Volunteers were sent out to do critical health work, like spraying to get rid of the pervasive mold plaguing homes and businesses. And centers were set up where people could find dehumidifiers, diapers, mops, masks, sump pumps and other items.
“Because that (canvassing) work was done, (the WCC) was able to mobilize volunteers and get right out there and really start helping people on a door-to-door basis, which has been very impactful,” Carlo said.
Networks with local faith communities prove critical
In Lamoille County, Lev said WCC work to strengthen connections with faith communities was hugely helpful.
For instance, she said, when people coordinating volunteer and resource distribution needed to make door-to-door contacts, they called on the Latter-day Saints in the community, who are accustomed to going door-to-door as part of their evangelism efforts.
Lev said the establishment of a “water library” in Morrisville – after the village’s water was deemed unsafe to drink – came after a local faith leader spoke up at a pre-scheduled WCC housing advocacy group meeting. Donated water for the “library” was soon stacked inside and outside her church.
The flood waters in Lamoille County and around Vermont have long receded, but the impacts from the disaster will linger for a while.
Carlo noted Vermont has been here before. She said the epic flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 wasn’t long ago in many Vermonters minds. For many, the lessons stuck about the need for the community to band together and help each other.
The July 2023 floods have come with their own lessons, Carlo added.
“You can see the importance of doing everything we can to build those existing community networks,” she said. “Once you build them, you know they're already there, both in good times and bad.”