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Tod Hill carried insulation to protect doors at the Federal Building in Montpelier. At right, Main Street was flooded in downtown Montpelier in 1992, causing more than $5 million in damage.
Tod Hill carried insulation to protect doors at the Federal Building in Montpelier. At right, Main Street was flooded in downtown Montpelier in 1992, causing more than $5 million in damage. (Michele McDonald/ Globe Staff)

Vermont's capital braces for possible river flooding

MONTPELIER -- About 100 volunteers in Vermont's tiny capital city yesterday shoveled tons of sand into more than 2,000 sandbags and distributed them to downtown businesses, churches, and homes. These are the days of worry -- a flood may be coming.

In 1992, a devastating flood poured into the center of Montpelier, causing more than $5 million in damage and forcing several businesses to close permanently. Now, a large section of the Winooski River has frozen, just as it did before the 1992 flood, and the community is taking extensive precautions -- and feeling a dreadful sense of deja vu.

The Peach Tree , a women's clothing store on Main Street, has posted a "Pre-Flood Sale" sign, offering 70 percent off on all items in the basement; at least a dozen other stores are holding inventory clearance and spring sales, even if spring is perhaps a month away. Workers recently stacked more than 1,000 sandbags and built a cement wall on one side of the Federal Building, which houses the Post Office, sealing off the basement.

"Of course we're taking this threat seriously," said Norma Segale , owner of The Peach Tree . "In 1992, people were taking boats down Main Street. I just returned from a buying trip -- buying clothes for the fall. What bad timing. Hopefully, we'll still have a business in the fall."

City officials are putting into play several strategies to free up the river and have established a flood warning website and "phone trees" to get word out of any coming disaster. And yesterday, the Montpelier Downtown Community Association, after making an urgent call for volunteers, distributed the sandbags around low-lying areas.

This is in sharp contrast to 1992, when in a matter of 15 minutes, with no warning, the flood inundated the small downtown area with more than 2 feet of water.

"We now have some warning that there is a very real possibility of a flood," said Police Chief Douglas S. Hoyt , 61, who said he is spending almost all his time on flood preparation. "But this whole entire process is weather dependent."

Montpelier, population 8,000, was built more than 200 years ago in the folds of steep hills around the confluence of two rivers: the powerful Winooski, which curves just south of downtown and the gold-domed State House; and the smaller North Branch, which cuts through the heart of the business district and feeds the Winooski.

The Winooski is now nearly frozen solid for about a mile, from the intersection with the North Branch to what locals call the "cemetery curve," a bend downriver alongside Green Mount Cemetery . A quick freeze in January created frazil ice, a slushy accumulation that has sharply restricted the flow of water.

If temperatures suddenly rose to 50 or 60 degrees and if heavy rain accompanied the thaw -- not unusual in central Vermont in March -- ice sheets would probably break loose on the river and become lodged at cemetery curve. That's what happened in 1992, causing an ice jam then and shooting waves of water back toward the city, up the North Branch, and into the streets.

"Think of it as coronary artery disease," Hoyt said. "A clot comes along in the form of an ice jam and finishes blocking off the artery. It clogs up and bingo, that's when you get the flood."

City officials have ruled out using dynamite to break up the jam because the area is too large, and broken-up ice could refreeze. They decided against using a crane to punch holes in the ice for the same reasons.

Hoyt believes two other approaches might work in breaking up the ice. One, completed last week, was using snow blowers to dust the ice with a mixture of sand and mulch.

Officials hope the sun will warm the dark material, melting the top of the ice.

The second, started Friday, is to pump more than a million gallons of treated water a day from the wastewater treatment plant around the cemetery curve area. The water, which is normally released into the Winooski River at another point, is at 47 degrees, which specialists say could melt substantial portions of the ice.

The wastewater hasn't lessened the threat. "Not even close," Todd Law, public works director, said yesterday. "Once we get a big melt, that's when the danger will come."

Business owners selling basement inventory at vastly reduced prices are not taking chances.

"We're not insured for anything in the basement, so we've pulled everything out of there," said Janice DeGoosh , owner of The Pink Shutter , a floral and gift shop, as she walked into her basement.

The Pink Shutter was having a spring-clearing sale.

"It just feels more optimistic to call it that," DeGoosh said.

John Donnelly can be reached at