Receding floodwaters reveal damage, mess in Vermont

Posted June 19, 2011, at 7:35 p.m.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — For people and businesses along its shoreline, the receding floodwaters of Lake Champlain shoreline are both blessing and curse.

After two months above flood stage, the giant freshwater lake bordered by New York, Vermont and Quebec is finally getting back where it belongs — and out of basements, streets and lakefront cottages. On Saturday, it dipped below 100 feet above sea level, which is flood stage, for the first time since April 13.

The water may be gone, but it has left behind a muddy mess, deposits of debris and driftwood everywhere and properties suddenly in need of big ticket repairs.

At the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, water that rose to 8 inches deep forced the evacuation of the office, which now needs new drywall and electric wiring. Worse, it damaged shoreline and docks where the sailing center launches its boats.

While its boats and equipment are designed to get wet, much was damaged by being submerged for weeks, according to executive director Kate Neubauer.

The flooding delayed the opening of the center from late April until July 4, which cost about $50,000 in program revenue and $25,000 more in damages. Not all the problems are known yet, though. Divers must still get underwater to examine the sluice gates where boats are launched to see if there is damage below, she said.

Aided by volunteers, work on the cleanup continues in advance of the postponed opening date.

But the experience has shaken both staff and users of the lake.

“Our whole existence is based on Lake Champlain,” said Neubauer, pointing out the damages to a visitor last week. “What (the flooding) did for us was to remind us that Lake Champlain is a powerful presence in this community. This flood exemplified that. It has a lot of power. It flooded and it caused a lot of damage.”

And left a lot behind.

In the sailing center’s boatyard, there’s a Dumpster filled with the flotsam and jetsam that floated in with floodwaters — a couch, part of a refrigerator, shoes, clothing, driftwood of all shapes and sizes

In the North Cove Road neighborhood of Burlington where Kyle Southwell lives, the water turned the road into a moving river several feet deep that surrounded homes. Some were flooded, others just isolated by the water.

“Six weeks of hell,” said Southwell, 31.

He wasn’t able to drive in and out until last week. He’s still assessing the damage. Muskrats that swam in water under the house during the flooding chewed up insulation, and the floodwaters washed away the gravel driveway he put down last year.  He’s concerned that the structure itself may have been damaged.

About 50 miles up the lake’s eastern shore from that Burlington neighborhood, the cleanup is under way at the St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle La Motte.

The shrine site, a picturesque 13-acre lakefront property that’s a summertime destination for thousands each year, was flooded by up to a foot of water for weeks. It flooded the gift shop, a candle house and an open-air pavilion from which staff members and volunteers had removed rows and rows of pews as the lake level rose in April.

Trees are listing because the ground beneath them is so sodden. A large cottonwood that fell across a road is still blocking the way to a statue of Samuel de Champlain. The split rail fencing that borders the site is gone, pathways have been damaged and the stones in the parking lot must be restored, said Sandy Kinney, the local administrator of the site.

“We’re still finding stuff as the water goes away,” she said.

On Saturday, nearly 100 volunteers turned out for a Day of Service, to help in the cleanup effort, which is continuing.

“I keep reminding myself there’s people who’ve lost their homes,” said Kinney. “On the other hand, you can’t help but look at it and feel sad.”

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