Flood-ravaged Vermont waits for action from a gridlocked Congress

Flood-ravaged Vermont waits for action from a gridlocked Congress

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In the small town of Johnson, Vermont, a few dozen miles south of the Canadian border, a family still lives in a tent outside their damaged mobile home.  

The only food market within miles is gutted. The flooded U.S. Post Office shifted its service to a small van with an awning in a parking lot.

A town official told CBS News the town wastewater treatment plant and its pump station will need to be moved to prevent another failure and to continue serving the community’s 3,000 residents. It’s estimated to cost $25 million.

Nearly 20 miles away, the wastewater treatment plant was also submerged in the community of Hardwick. The city manager told CBS News that most of Hardwick’s roads — 80 miles — must be repaired, or they will be rendered impassable in the winter. City leaders are also worried about how many home owners lost their furnaces, just a couple of months before the unforgiving Vermont chill returns.

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The U.S. Post Office in Johnson, Vermont, is now operating out of a van.

CBS News


In the capital, Montpelier, a children’s clothing store was inundated and needs assistance to reopen.

Six weeks ago, a torrent of rain and a catastrophic flood ravaged Vermont, with an estimated two months worth of rain falling in two days. More than 100 people were rescued. 

The emergency and rescues have ended. But the damage, rebuilding and recovery efforts persist. In some cases, it’s been sluggish in a state with smaller towns, smaller roads, fewer contractors and supply chain disruptions. 

What has been the federal response? 

Perhaps no surprise, it’s the Congressional delegation from Vermont raising warning flags that the federal government is running short on emergency disaster funds and risks a temporary, but potentially lengthy, interruption in the federal response to the flood.

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In a letter to the White House this month, the two U.S. senators from Vermont urged President Biden to request emergency funding from Congress to help the expensive and painstaking rebuilding. The letter said, “To help New England farmers, small businesses, and communities recover from the July 2023 floods, we ask that you include assistance for New England in your supplemental appropriations request.”  

The White House has since requested $12 billion in emergency disaster relief funding from Congress to help fund the federal recovery programs and assist the growing number of states and communities that have suffered natural disasters this year. But the outlook for the funding is precarious, in a Congress that is polarized, gridlocked and unpredictable in its ability to formally approve new spending.

“The fear all of us have is that we will get caught in the buzzsaw of shutdown politics,” said Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont. “That’s very, very dangerous for all of us who have constituents hammered by a weather event.”

Congress is already approaching a Sept. 30 deadline to approve new spending to fund the entirety of the federal government and avert a government shutdown. And Congress might face an even tighter deadline to approve the emergency disaster relief funds requested by the president. With Republicans’ narrow majority in the House and Democrats’ narrow majority in the Senate — and in the wake of an ugly debate to avert a debt ceiling crisis earlier this year — the prospect of an impasse is growing. 

Can FEMA cover the cost? 

Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Deanna Criswell told CBS News the agency’s disaster relief fund is projected to run short on funding in September, as the fiscal year ends. A failure by Congress to approve new spending to replenish the funds raises the risk that FEMA will have to halt some of its longer-term rebuilding and recovery programs nationwide, including in Vermont.

Former FEMA official Elizabeth Zimmerman said that if money runs low, FEMA will spend its remaining funds on the most urgent and time-sensitive needs. Zimmerman told CBS News that “recovery projects from recently-declared disasters, such as Vermont’s severe storms, could be put on hold until supplemental funds are made available.”

What are Congress’ next steps? 

Congress remains on its summer recess until after Labor Day. A spokesperson for Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said the timetable for consideration of an emergency disaster funding bill would become clearer after Senators return to Washington in September. The House majority leader’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CBS News about the timing of a debate on the proposal.

The members of Congress from Vermont have begun lobbying their colleagues to support the emergency funding. 

“Our job is to appeal to our colleagues,” Democratic Rep. Becca Balint told CBS News. “This time it’s my district. Next time it’s going to be your district. Climate change is coming for you. And your constituents are not going to escape from it.”

Welch said he is having conversations with Senators from both parties about the need to approve funding.

Members of the powerful New York Congressional delegation are helping champion the legislation too. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters last week, “I am fully supportive of that and will do everything I can to get it passed in the Senate. Whether it’s a hurricane in the south or east, the flood in the Midwest, the wildfire in the West, Americans can’t fail to answer the call when our fellow Americans are suffering from disaster. That’s always been the case in this country year after year, decade after decade. And I believe it should continue and hope it will continue.”

“Some people have just lost everything”  

As Congress resumes the debate over spending, the slog of repair work continues in upstate Vermont. Local officials acknowledge it will be a grind.

“We have people who are living in homes that are gutted,” Town of Johnson board member Beth Foy told CBS News. “But they’re still living in those homes. We have people without electricity. We have people who are living with friends, not necessarily in town. We have people who are using money provided by the Red Cross and FEMA and other entities to live in hotels.” 

A few Good Samaritans managed to rescue the books from the Johnson town library as the flood waters rose during the catastrophe and the building was gutted.

Local Vermont officials acknowledge the rebuilding will be lengthy and will likely require ongoing federal support.

“Some people have just lost everything,” said Hardwick city manager David Upson.

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