• Flood precautions continue, omens seem to improve
     | March 14,2007

    MONTPELIER The state capital continues to brace for potential flooding, but Mother Nature and city workers joined with the Vermont National Guard to do their best Tuesday to alleviate the threat.

    Still, from pre-emptive removal of historic artifacts to continued sandbagging and even a psychic thawing ceremony, residents and officials are preparing for the worst, a devastating flood into downtown.

    Under blue skies and temperatures in the high 40s, further signs emerged that the ice jam plaguing the river was loosening its grip. A channel broke open below the Green Mount Cemetery where only ice had existed this weekend. And as the overall volume of water began to rise with melting snow, the river depth actually dropped, an indication that blockages may be disappearing.

    "The experts over at CRREL (the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory) think that this might indicate a potential opening up of the river," Police Chief Doug Hoyt said Tuesday. "I was down at the river today by the cemetery and was semi-stunned because there was a lead that had opened up that was probably 300-feet long and five feet wide."

    Rain and continued warmer temperatures are in the forecast for the remainder of the week, but are not expected to be heavy enough to break up the river ice.

    "They've run some models, and if we were to get an inch of rain, that could have the potential to raise the river 4 feet and that could be enough to make ice move," Hoyt said. "But the forecasted rain is pretty limited and not supposed to be that significant."

    Forecasters at the National Weather Service in Burlington said that between one-quarter and one-half inch of rain could fall on the region in the next 24 hours.

    Still, Montpelier residents and property owners continued to prepare for the worst-case scenario Tuesday.

    Nearly two-dozen Vermont National Guard troops invaded the town garage, cranking out hundreds of sand bags that they delivered to City Hall. Using a large machine to fill the bags, guard members from Berlin, Rutland, Springfield, South Burlington and Jericho rolled through the city all day with trucks loaded down with sandbag pallets.

    The city briefly tested its warning siren as well, but cranked up the device for only a few seconds. The siren gets louder the longer it is left on, so few residents noticed the sound. Hoyt said the siren would be tested again and would be left on for longer in the future.

    Even FEMA got involved. Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in a written release Tuesday that the agency is monitoring the ongoing situation in Montpelier. FEMA officials, including members of its Emergency Response Team, met with state emergency managers this week in Waterbury to be briefed on the situation.

    "By better understanding the potential magnitude of what might happen, we can better position ourselves to assist local and state emergency managers if that is needed," said Arthur W. Cleaves, FEMA regional director. "But what residents and businesses also need to understand is that now is the time for them to start making their own plans in the event that flooding occurs."

    Montpelier residents resorted to some alternative flood preparations. In the small Peace Park near the site of the ice jam, a group was scheduled to gather at noon Wednesday to present non-polluting offerings to the river spirits in a "gentle thaw" ceremony. Whether the river spirits responded to the psychic calls is uncertain.

    State workers were also bracing for flooding. State Curator David Schutz spent Monday and Tuesday removing more than 80 historic flags from storage in the basement of the Pavilion building on State Street.

    Schutz said 68 of the flags are from the Civil War and some are worth "tens of thousand of dollars." The flags were once on display at the Statehouse, but were removed in recent years in order to preserve them.

    The flags will be moved up to the third floor until they are shipped in September to their final resting place at the Vermont History Center in Barre.

    "We spent a very long time yesterday moving all of them and we're not quite finished yet," Schutz said. "But I feel today tremendously relieved that most are out of danger."

    Similar basement cleanouts were under way across the city as business owners attempted to avert the loss of inventory if the city floods.

    The risk of a flood, while diminished, remains because of a freeze-up ice jam in the river.

    The current ice jam was caused by floating slush known as frazil ice. Formed during the winter's abnormally warm January, which featured an open river then followed by super-cold temperatures, the slush washed downstream and began sticking to the sides and bottom of the river. Over time, the river froze solid from top to bottom for nearly two-thirds of its width for about a mile. Only a thin open channel remains.

    The jam has worked its way from the initial blockage near Green Mount Cemetery on lower State Street upstream to a spot near the Shaw's supermarket.

    The city and experts from the Cold Regions Research and Environmental Laboratory are worried that when the sheet ice upstream of Montpelier breaks up in the spring thaw, it will catch on the deep frozen jam, damming the river and triggering massive flooding similar to the catastrophe of March 1992.

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