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Sen. Welch Tours Hardwick, Assessing Response to Historic Flooding

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photo by Vanessa Fournier
Senator Peter Welch (left) and Hardwick Town Manager David (Opie) Upson (right) leave the town offices for a walk around downtown to view and discuss the recovery since last year’s flooding. In the center is Miles McGuriman, outreach representative for Senator Welch.

HARDWICK – Vermont Senator Peter Welch paid a visit to town on May 29 where he went on a walking tour of Hardwick’s downtown and viewed flood damaged areas with Town Manager David Upson, Zoning Administrator Kristen Leahy and Community Development Coordinator Tracy Martin.

The visit was a chance for the town employees to share their experiences since the flood and hear from Welch what help he might be able to offer.

Welch had just come from Johnson when he arrived at the Memorial Building to begin his visit. He got Upson’s update on Hardwick’s flood response since his last visit, just a week after the July 2023 floods.

During that visit, with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Governor Phil Scott and Congresswoman Becca Balint, they assessed damage to an LVRT bridge and visited the partly washed away Inn by the River.

Leaving the Memorial Building with a gaggle of reporters, television cameras and a photographer, Welch took time to admire the Jeudevine Memorial Library addition, offering Upson his “congratulations on all the projects” happening in Hardwick.

During the walk down North Main Street, Leahy updated Welch on some of the difficulties navigating flood recovery efforts with outdated flood maps, while new draft maps that are available, provide more accurate information.

At the now closed swinging bridge, Welch leaned over the railing overlooking the Lamoille River as Upson pointed out damage to the retaining wall, sharing plans for its repair as part of the new pedestrian bridge replacement to the swinging bridge, now out to bid.

Upson noted there’s a shortage of civil engineers available to take on important flood recovery efforts. He then shared the town’s good fortune that the contractor who had been working on the sewer plant prior to that July 2023 flood, had been able to “pivot to flood response.”

Hardwick “is able to do a lot with a little due to our process,” said Upson. Welch responded that “The best leadership is local.”

Much of Upson’s conversation with Welch involved the town’s work with FEMA, where Upson said only five town projects out of 30 have been obligated (approved), and only $48,000 out of $1M has actually been received.

Hardwick has been fortunate to have “a healthy fund balance” according to Upson, which has helped avoid the need for borrowing.

Upson was appreciative of the initial FEMA staff who arrived soon after the flooding and offered assurance of coming federal assistance. Since then the layers of bureaucracy can get frustrating as well as sometimes “painful, expensive and dispiriting.” He noted that sometimes FEMA lingo “is unknown, “which can be a challenge, but that, over time, he and other town staff have learned to understand it.

From the bridge, the tour headed to the site of the former Inn by the River, where Welch shared ways that FEMA’s work has changed as more extreme weather events are happening. FEMA projects are now about mitigating the future effects of flood events and making infrastructure more resilient, he said. Leahy and Upson agreed that seems to be the case

While there, it was evident that more of the former inn had fallen into the river since July 2023.

Looking over the bank, one could see exposed water lines and the round concrete bulk of a sewer manhole extending from the eroded bank. Upson said that, with the inn property being bought out and soon to be cleared, ready to become green space, it will be necessary to move that manhole and waterline back toward the Hays service station property. With the inn no longer there, that will be the new end of the town’s water and sewer infrastructure in that direction.

Passing the Buffalo Mountain Market’s driveway paving project underway, Welch stopped to chat with Bill Chdsey who’s been coordinating infrastructure projects.

Back at the Memorial Building, Welch commented that, “no matter what government does, it doesn’t make up for the experience” [of loss]. “What I can do is help work with them in getting the government to speed up a response,” but the “harsh reality is that local leadership helps.”

Welch bemoaned the lost opportunity after a big loss like the motel, whose owners were invested in the community and ended up moving elsewhere. He noted that it’s the sense of identity from being part of a community that’s important.

Ending his visit, Welch encountered town residents, including Stephanie Fraser who shared her experience of counting cars at the intersection of Main and Wolcott streets after the eclipse, where she determined that a significant percentage of the out-of-state vehicles that were in the state that day had passed through Hardwick.

“Flood recovery is a long-term project. Rebuilding after a natural disaster happens over time, long after the flood waters recede. We’re fighting to get the folks in Johnson and Hardwick the resources they need. We’re also advocating on their behalf with FEMA to cut through some of the red tape that’s become a long-term challenge for impacted flood victims,” said Sen. Welch. “As communities continue to recover, we’re going to keep pushing to bring the flexible funds, the attention, and the long-term resiliency resources needed to rebuild stronger than before.”

Paul Fixx is editor of The Hardwick Gazette and lives in Hardwick.

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