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Historic Floods Strike New England; Vermont Declared a Disaster

"The same, if not worse." That is a quote from Brendan McNamara, Ludlow, Vermont Town Manager. He said this when describing what people were saying when comparing this storm to Tropical Storm Irene.

The Winooski River has risen two feet above Irene's flooding in 2011. The Lamoille river has risen four feet above Irene's levels. That is a testament to how extraordinary this flooding event has been. Just 12 years after Tropical Storm Irene set the benchmark for modern flooding in Vermont, the 2023 floods have challenged this benchmark. Whether this storm was the same, worse or not as bad as Irene comes down to individual experiences.

The storm began to slowly ramp up Sunday evening. It was actually southwest New Hampshire that bore the brunt of the very beginning of the storm. A very slow moving thunderstorm moved over Winchester, Swanzey and surrounding communities. This cell dropped up to five inches of rain over the course of a couple hours. Numerous roads were washed out, including route 10 in Winchester, which saw major damage.

Route 10 in Winchester, NH Sunday evening (PHOTO: WMUR)

Rainfall began to fill in across Vermont throughout Sunday night into the early part of Monday morning. By three o'clock in the morning, large areas of the state were covered by flash flood warnings. At this point, the National Weather Service officially called the flooding "life threatening." Storm reports were very slow to come in during this time as many were sleeping and the darkness of night mad it difficult to see the extent of flooding.

By seven in the morning, light had begun to reveal the nature of the flooding. It became clear at this point that this would be a disastrous situation. Flooding was already very significant and the rain would continue all day, well into the evening hours Monday. Multiple rescues had already been reported to have happened, or were ongoing.

By seven thirty, something unprecedented happened. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency. These alerts are issued for "EXCEEDINGLY RARE situations when extremely heavy rain is leading to a severe threat to human life and CATASTROPHIC DAMAGE from a flash flood is happening or will happen soon. Typically, emergency officials are reporting LIFE-THREATENING water rises resulting in water rescues/evacuations."

This emergency alert debuted in 2014, this was the first such alert ever issued in Vermont. The alert was issued for Weston, Ludlow, Andover and Bridgewater. Ludlow would prove to be the epicenter of this disaster. By nine in the morning, stunning images and videos began emerging from the ravaged town.

Photo credits: Judy Clough, Shauntay Morsey, Magic Mountain Ski Area, Pat Moore/Tyler Jankoski

Flash flood warnings continued to expand throughout the morning. By midday, most of the state was covered by the alert. Dozens of major routes across the state were shut down, due to flood waters over the road, mud over the road or the road being heavily damaged or destroyed.

Late in the morning, the heavy began to spread east in New England. While Vermont and western Massachusetts proved to be, by far, the hardest hit, other areas of the region saw issues. By eleven in the morning, a large flood warning was issued for eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Worcester County. Multiple cars were reported to be stuck in flood waters in this area as floods covered roads. This includes Providence, who saw a rather significant flooding event on the fourth of July.

While this was going on, heavy rain continued to very slowly move over Vermont. While flash flooding was still the primary concern at this point, runoff started to become very serious. Vermont state Police shared a stunning video showing a massive amount of water pouring over a dam on the Ottauquechee River.

Also late in the morning, state officials held a press conference. At this time, officials confirmed that 19 rescues had already been completed by several different agencies. Agencies were also going town to town to perform searches for those in distress.

Around midday, a concerning development began to come into the picture in regards to the meteorology of the storm. The area of low pressure began to become a closed low as the system began to take on a negative tilt. This development would allow rain to blossom in the area of the Winooski River Valley throughout the afternoon.

By the early afternoon, flood alerts were littered across all six of New England's states.

New England Storm Center alert map in the early afternoon.

As the afternoon wore on, the threat began to shift from flash flooding to river flooding. In Vermont and New Hampshire, where the terrain is so varied, all this rain water had to go somewhere after running down the hills and mountains. Where the water went was the region's river, streams and brooks.

Evacuations of areas in flood prone places began to spread around the state as rivers were forecast to reach major flood stage. The fire department of Moretown, Vermont went door to door to evacuate residents as the Mad River was forecast to hit major flood stage by midnight.

Photos from WCAX

By Monday evening, rivers began reaching major flood stage, including the Winooski River at Montpelier. This is where the concerning development described earlier began coming into play. At 8 o'clock in the evening, Montpelier was under a flash flood and river flood warning at the same time as heavy rain came down while the Winooski River continued to rise from runoff. At this time, the flooding level surpassed Irene.

Downtown Montpelier Monday evening. (PHOTO: Bill Fraser)

As of Tuesday morning, seven river gauges are in major flood stage across Vermont with 24 gauges in flood stage total across New England. The Lamoille River at Jeffersonville has set a new all-time record for flooding. Otter Brook in Rutland approached record levels, but did not surpass it.

Video of Otter Creek:

By ten thirty Tuesday morning, the Winooski River at Montpelier reached 21.35 feet well into major flood stage. The Wrightsville dam is approaching capacity and may need to be released to avoid a failure. This would cause even worse flooding in Montpelier. The city is just about cutoff, so evacuation options are very limited for anyone still in the city. Officials told anyone in the city that their best bet at this point would be to head to the highest level of your home or building.



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