September 30, 2023

Massive floods have swallowed up the town I love in Vermont

Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent book is ‘Borges and Me’, a memoir. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

As much of the world now knows, Vermont is under water. The rains that flooded the state over the past week have been nothing short of biblical. Massive floods have turned our beautiful capital, Montpelier, into a lake where cars are buried, with water reaching the second floor of many buildings.

Jay Parini - Jay Parini

Jay Parini – Jay Parini

The air itself tingles with fear that the Winooski River will only get worse before things improve. More than three inches of rain fell on this poor city in one day, and the Wrightsville Dam, just north of Montpelier, could well burst.

Flooding in the state, of course, affected communications. Some radio towers are down. This is worse, people keep saying, than Hurricane Irene in 2011, a weather event that lingers in my own mind as a terrible time for all of us.

“What’s different for me is Irene held out for about 24 hours,” Governor Phil Scott said at a news conference Monday. “We get just as much rain, if not more, and it goes on for days. That’s my concern. It’s not just the initial damage.”

Flooding has occurred in areas normally immune to it, including the ski resorts of Killington and Ludlow. Many roads have been closed across the state and emergency shelters have been set up in dozens of cities from Barre and Bethel to Jamaica and Randolph.

Residents of posh Woodstock have been told to boil their water. Late Tuesday, although the rain had stopped, floodwaters continued to rise. And forecasts say more rain is likely on the way for this waterlogged region.

I moved to Vermont 50 years ago thinking it was high and dry, a place apart from the usual chaos of the world, protected from the kind of weather events you read about in places like New Orleans or Texas or Florida. Vermont seemed peaceful for the most part, a kind of rural idyll, with endless cows grazing in the fields, with rolling mountains as green in summer as their name, the Green Mountains.

The beautiful rivers – including the Winooski, the West and the White, the Otter Creek, the Lamoille and the Missisquoi – were mostly calm bodies of water. They usually move at a stately pace and rarely go wild, except briefly in late spring when snowmelt adds to their volume and speed.

I love Vermont’s waterways and I spend a lot of time in my little boat on Otter Creek. It’s my favorite thing to do: float gently down the river, which flows into Lake Champlain, one of the most beautiful lakes in the northeastern United States—a meager 125-mile body of water stretching from Canada to Whitehall, New York , where it flows into a channel that leads to the Hudson River.

A few days ago, I went out on Lake Champlain with my wife on a Saturday afternoon. It would normally be busy with sailboats, kayaks, canoes and motorboats, a summer playground. Oddly enough, we were the only boat in sight, and it soon became clear why this was so.

The air was thick with smoke from the Canadian wildfires, turning the entire Northeast into a danger zone. I wondered if we should just turn around and head back to the wharf, but we held on, floating in the middle of the lake as the rancid smoke, a kind of infernal smog that ripped at the lungs, descended on the water. The fact that we are not isolated from the effects of climate change hit me hard.

It may be too easy to blame Canada’s wildfires solely on climate change. There are complicated factors at work here, as Isabella Kaminski recently pointed out in a piece for the BBC.

But apparently half of Canada’s fires are ignited by lightning strikes, and increased lightning is one of many things exacerbated by climate change.

The climate issue is hardly new. Man-made greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat overhead. Superheated air increases the effect of evaporation. We have been seeing more intense weather conditions in Vermont for several years now.

The Bible itself often speaks of fire and flood as signs of the last days. In the 17th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we read that people were eating and drinking, getting married, when the floods came “and destroyed them all.” The Gospel writer also refers to the brimstone fire that rained down on Sodom in the time of Lot.

With the biblical floods and wildfires a part of life in Vermont in the summer of 2023, it’s hard not to at least feel that we, too, are approaching some kind of end time. Perhaps our plunder of the planet has finally hit home.

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