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In Johnson, floods brought devastation but also hope and togetherness

 A woman wears a tank top and shorts and smokes a cigarette in front of her flooded white house. The lilies are crushed. There is a spray painted white cloth that reads We Need FEMA in all red, with a phone number.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Tosh Gilmore of Johnson stands in front of her flooded house. She made this sign, hoping someone from FEMA might see it.

The sun was shining Thursday in Johnson. And while the Lamoille was back between its banks, you could see where floodwaters were by the greasy brown sheen they left on the street, people’s gardens and buildings.

The air smelled a bit like sewage. But people were out on their porches, pumping out neighbors' basements. Some were smoking cigarettes and listening to music while they took in the damage.

On Monday and Tuesday this week, Johnson saw some of the worst flooding in the state. The village sits where the Gihon River meets the Lamoille.

Tosh Gilmore lives on lower Main Street, about a quarter mile from the Lamoille River, near the wastewater plant.

 A pile of muddy dishes sits on a muddy stovetop. The bowl is full of floodwater, showing how high it was. The water is brown.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
A bowl on Tosh's stove shows just how high the floodwaters were inside her home. It was still full of water on Thursday.

She recalled what happened on Monday and Tuesday.

“Crazy weather came in. We got flooded out in Johnson. [It was] higher weather … more inches than expected,” she said.

Gilmore said the flooding was bad.

“We've overcome the greatest weather catastrophe in Johnson, Vermont,” she said. “It's gonna be hard.”

Four to five feet of water flowed through the first floor of her house. Her neighbors’ trailer was totaled. At one point, the water was so high, it swallowed the shed.

Worse, she said it smelled — and still does — like sewage.

Gilmore put a lot of work into her house, and got support from her community to do it.

“Rebuilt from Irene. I've had thousands of dollars of windows donated to me, to repair all the burnt out, blown out windows … wood to redo the walls and finish the construction,” she said. “And then that lovely little storm came through and destroyed everything on me again. And I've lost everything.”

 A woman stands with her arm raised to show the water line on her jean jacket, hanging on the back of her door. It shows there was at least 5 feet of water in her entryway.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Tosh Gilmore shows the water line on her jean jacket, which was hanging on the back of her front door during the flood. She estimates there was at least five feet of water in her home.

Gilmore has had renter’s insurance for decades, but when she called, her insurance company said it doesn’t cover flooding.

“Nobody ever specifically told me that I wasn't covered for any kind of water from Mother Nature,” she said. “They only cover lightning. This last storm had lightning, which comes with rain, and I flooded and lose everything. And I'm not covered. All they did was wish me luck.”

Gilmore hopes FEMA can help, but she hasn’t seen them yet in Johnson. She spray painted a sign that reads: “We Need FEMA” with her phone number, and hung it on the front of her house.

While she cleans out her home, she’s trying to figure out where to go next.

“I've only been here a year and a half. And I lived in hotels and campgrounds for a year,” she said.

Down the road, Dennis and Teresa Cote were pumping out their basement and listening to the Eagles, while they aired out furniture and clothes.

The whole first floor of their house flooded. They lost their garden, and a snowmobile Dennis had bought Teresa in March.

She hadn’t even had a chance to ride it yet.

Dennis said they have a camp on a hill in the Kingdom, so they have a place to stay. But they’ve been fixing this old house up and when they evacuated they had to leave their cat, Blue Blue behind.

It’s been really eating at Dennis.

“We’re good friends. She puts me to bed, tucks me in at night, and puts me to bed and everything. And… ahh, I miss her right now,” he said. “Hopefully she shows up. Might not be so happy, if not. But she’ll come back.”

 A man in lime green shorts and an orange t shirt gestures to a blooming pink lily. A woman in a red t-shirt and black athletic shorts stands next to him. There are belongings in the yard.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Dennis and Teresa Cote show the lily that bloomed just above the water line at their Johnson home during the peak of the flood.

He says he’s been seeing signs of her in the house. He thinks she’s hiding out until things start to calm down a bit.

By the time Dennis and his daughter left the house late Monday night, the river was flowing over main street north and south of their house. They took a backroad through the mountains and spent Monday night in a Jolley parking lot.

When they got back to Johnson the next morning, the river was up to the porch and all through the basement.

“It was so strong that it took the hot water heater,” Dennis said. “I was pumping out — I didn't realize I had more water coming in because it broke the water line coming into [the house].”

He says you have to laugh, because otherwise, you’d cry. So he’s looking for humor.

 A supermarket produce stall sits crushed in a dusty parking lot. A sign on the building behind it reads Sterling Market.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
The Sterling Market in Johnson is closed indefinitely due to flood damage.

“Flowers are still blooming, the lilies. Up front, too and everything,” he said. “I thought they’d all be gone, they were all underwater.”

In fact, when the river was at peak flood, Teresa and Dennis caught a photo of just one of her many lilies blooming right above the muddy water.

Dennis says he’s just grateful no one died in Johnson.

“Life goes on. Can’t change it. I'm not the type and neither is my wife that’s gonna lay down, say, ‘Why me, why me? Poor me.’ Not my style. Rather bootstrap, get up and clean it up, rebuild it. Going to rebuild it better than it was before.”

Over on Railroad Street, another low spot in town, most of the houses were flooded. The basement at the public library flooded, too, and some water made it to the first floor.

Jasmine Yuris is the facilities director there. She was salvaging kids books and materials with her own kids.

 A sandwich board sign reads Neighbors Helping Neighbors God Bless Us Everyone. It's by the entrance to a parking lot.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
A sign in Johnson's village Thursday.

She’s heard a lot of people call this event “unprecedented” or a “hundred-year flood.”

“It’s really hard when you have young children and you try to … you know, give context to something like this,” she said. “And… I have to catch myself from time to time and say, like, ‘This actually might be more of a regular occurrence. This might not be unprecedented. This may be an every-five-year thing.’”

Vermont is already seeing more extreme rain events due to climate change. But most models show that the trend can be improved if the world reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

But in the meantime, Yuris is thinking about how to help her community adapt.

“Looking towards the future of Johnson … I think that it’s important for us to take on that understanding and to accept that there is a shift in climate,” she said. “And we are prone with this convergence of two rivers meeting right here in our lovely village so that yeah, flood mitigation just needs to be a hot topic.”

 A shirtless man sits wearing sunglasses on a stoop with his arms crossed. There is s folgers jar as an ash tray next to him. You can see floodwater spatter against the clapboards behind him.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
David Camley said the smell of fuel oil in his apartment was making him and his dog nauseous.

Over on upper Main Street, things were looking a bit drier. David Camley was taking a smoke break on the stoop of his apartment. He said a fuel oil spill in the basement made the place reek. But he was still there and he doesn’t plan to go anywhere else.

“The community came together like you wouldn’t believe. I mean, people were taking boats that weren’t theirs to try to help rescue people,” he recalled.

Camley said the community in Johnson is just phenomenal. And, he said, they’ll get through this together.


Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources

View or share a printable PDF version of these resources.

      Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

      Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.

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