Just a few hours before rain that would flood pockets of Vermont and bring the capital city to an “apocalyptic” standstill began, the owner of Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier was putting the final screw in place on a $300,000 restaurant expansion project.
The 14-year-old restaurant had reopened July 3 with a brand-new bar, upwards of 20 additional seats, and more kitchen and storage space. It was only closed for a planned 10 days of the months-long renovation project. “Supply issues were a pain,” says co-owner Kevin Kerner, so it wasn’t until July 9 when a contractor installed swinging doors to separate the new kitchen from the bar that the upgrade was finally complete.
The next day, a storm landed that would eventually dump as much as nine inches of water up and down the state. It had been a humid and wet summer, so as rainwater resisted soaking into the already-saturated landscape, flash flooding occurred — and the dam that protects flood-prone Montpelier came within one foot of overflowing. Ultimately, 39 inches of dirty water filled Three Penny Taproom, which is situated on low-lying land less than a block away from the North Branch of the Winooski River. If you were to sit on a stool at the brand-new bar, Kerner says, the water would have covered your hips.
The scope of impact on Vermont is still being calculated, both on the state level as well as by individuals and business owners. Experts agree, however, that flooding events like this one are becoming more frequent and destructive as the climate warms. After Tropical Storm Irene drenched the state with widespread flooding in 2011, officials tallied “unprecedented” costs of more than $800 million. So far this time around, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has earmarked $700,000 for individual and public assistance in Vermont, which doesn’t apply to commercial enterprises. On July 27, Gov. Phil Scott detailed plans for a $20 million fund from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development to disburse grants of up to $20,000 to affected businesses and nonprofits, and more in some cases of damage totaling more than $1 million.
Three Penny Taproom also has flood insurance. Kerner expects it will bring in about $95,000 and cover refrigeration and other equipment that needs to be replaced, now that the water has receded. Whatever it takes, he says, Three Penny will rebuild.
Not every flooded restaurant in Vermont will. Sam’s Steakhouse, a fixture in Ludlow, Vermont, will likely need to be torn down, says chef-owner Andrew Molen. He owns five restaurants and the Fox Run Golf Course with business partner Troy Caruso in the hard-hit Southern Vermont mountain town. Water rose nearly as high as the ceiling at Sam’s and stuck around for more than 24 hours. “Time will tell, with insurance and the rebuild, what we do with that space,” he says.
In the days after the storm, volunteers filled Montpelier, Barre, Ludlow, and other communities to help businesses muck out, but the challenges they face have only just started. Things like getting new equipment and applying for assistance are “going to be an uphill battle” for many mom-and-pop restaurant operators, especially those who have language barriers, Kerner says.
Next door to Three Penny Taproom, Montpelier’s Namaste Indian Nepali Kitchen was “destroyed by the flood,” says the takeout spot’s accountant, Peter Deng. Deng arrived in Vermont in 2007 as a refugee from what is now South Sudan and works with hundreds of clients who are immigrants in his capacity as a tax professional and business consultant. Migrants have a harder time accessing resources because of language barriers. Deng is currently on a planned business trip in Africa, where he was during the storm. He has been in touch with Namaste Indian Nepali Kitchen owner Thida Giri, who shared “terribly bad” photos of the flooding and its aftermath. “Given the fact that I’m out of the country, that will prolong the kind of help that’s afforded due to the lack of language,” Deng says. Giri could not be reached for comment.
The State of Vermont has translated its flood resources for residents into nine other languages, including Somali and Nepali. But official support for businesses has been slow in general, says Julia Watson, owner of Capitol Grounds in Montpelier. She knew the basement was flooded early Tuesday morning, and after checking the cafe’s security cameras from home and not seeing water in the dining area, she called the city’s public works department for proactive help. But “nobody had answers and nobody had sandbags.” Watson’s husband, Tyson Brown, a zoning administrator in the separate municipality of East Montpelier, then called a town colleague, she says, who met them at Capitol Grounds with 50 bags of grit to blockade the rushing river.
The sandbags didn’t really help, anyway. Hours later, Watson paddleboarded through 4 feet of water on State Street to check on Capitol Grounds. By that point, the water had already streamed out, but it left evidence in the cafe of about a foot of standing water. Watson, Brown, Capitol Grounds employees, and volunteers have been ripping out layers of flooring and Sheetrock since in an effort to dry the place out.
Watson describes the indignity of garbage and debris piling up for more than a week after the water receded. The Montpelier department in charge of trash finally came through to pick it up, she says, but the city had felt like “an apocalypse zone.” In her experience, the economic association Montpelier Alive has been more helpful in sharing resources and communicating with businesses than local officials have been. In Barre, where Watson also owns 802 Coffee Roasters, a commercial facility that wasn’t affected by floods, trash was removed much faster, she says. Per a July 19 press release from Montpelier’s planning and zoning administration, extensive flooding of the basement level of City Hall impacted Public Works and other municipal departments, slowing the city’s response.
While the latest round of flooding affected isolated areas of Vermont, it wasn’t only touristed, riverside downtowns. It was also the trailer parks and apartment buildings of Central and Southern Vermont. In general, low-income Vermonters are hit hardest by flooding, researchers with the University of Vermont determined while studying flood risks over the next 100 years. Not only are low-income Vermonters’ homes and businesses less resistant to flooding, but they have less in savings and insurance coverage.
In Ludlow, Molen’s other properties fared better than Sam’s, so the company has used them to support the community before focusing on rebuilding their damaged restaurants. In the days following the flood, Molen and Caruso set up a temporary shelter for a handful of flood-displaced residents — with cots, toiletries, and three meals a day — in the clubhouse at Fox Run Golf Course, with supplies provided by the Red Cross and local donors. The restaurant group also provided free meals for first responders. It was heartening to see “how people come together in trying times,” Molen says.
For one restaurateur whose business flooded, not being in a position to help out the community is an uneasy feeling. Rich McSheffrey, who owns two restaurants, a catering business, and a food truck in the city of Barre, says seeing other business owners step up in the aftermath of the flooding is “hard for me, because that’s usually us.” But the basement at Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen, his main operation, filled with acrid water, ruining hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of perishable inventory and equipment, he estimates, and forcing 35 of his staff members onto unemployment.
That said, McSheffrey is optimistic about reopening as soon as mid-August. And he’s grateful for all the support in the meantime. A few days after the storm, nearly 100 people responded to a request he posted on Facebook to help clean out his restaurants. “It brought the stress level down quite a bit when the community showed up,” McSheffrey says. His counter-service burrito joint, Two Loco Guys, reopened within a week of taking on water in its basement.
Restaurant owners are calling on people to patronize the businesses that are open in order to support communities affected by flooding. “We need people downtown for [Montpelier] to thrive,” Watson says.
Ludlow, home to Okemo Mountain ski resort, has become more of a year-round destination in recent years, explains Molen, a New Yorker who followed an influx of fellow city dwellers to Vermont during the pandemic. He says the flooding is particularly painful for its effects on summer tourism.
The Alchemist, the brewery behind the cult-followed Heady Topper IPA, had its original brew pub in Waterbury Center destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene. (Its current facility is on Mountain Road in Stowe, which made it through the latest storms unscathed.) And the most recent flooding has temporarily shuttered Prohibition Pig, the restaurant that replaced the Alchemist brew pub. “As our state continues to recover we need people to visit,” the Alchemist shared to its sizable social media following a week after the storm. “Sadly, we know firsthand how challenging it is to recover, rebuild and thrive after a devastating flood. But it can be done through a whole lot of hard work, commitment from those of us unaffected, and money.”
According to Kerner, the long-term response from government officials should include taking serious steps to mitigate the effects of climate change that contribute to the threat of floods in Vermont. Besides co-owning Three Penny Taproom with business partner Wes Hamilton, the former wilderness first responder is also a part-time consultant with Continuity Works, working with other business owners to develop preparedness plans. In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded Three Penny Taproom’s basement, but Kerner says a spring storm three months earlier that year had been even worse.
Flood preparedness was top of mind when Three Penny Taproom expanded into the adjacent storefront in the building where it leases. “What we did with our expansion was make 100 percent sure that everything of value is now out of the basement,” he says, based on their experience with flooding in the recent past. “But that didn’t help us here.”
The irony of the improvements finishing up just in time for another so-called 100-year flood, Kerner says, tells him it will happen again. He would like to work with state officials to use his experience recovering his own business after flooding to support others in the future. “The look of devastation on my neighbors’ faces is worth it for me to try to make change.”
Jacqueline Cain is a writer based in Boston and a former Vermont Press Association Rookie Reporter of the Year.