MONTPELIER, Vt. — President Biden approved a federal emergency declaration in Vermont, where widespread flooding left sections of the state’s capital underwater, forced evacuations, and caused extensive property damage, Governor Phil Scott said Tuesday, warning that the crisis is far from over.
As rescuers in canoes and inflatable boats made their way through downtown Montpelier, Scott said floodwaters continued to rise in many parts of the state, which has been deluged with about two months of rain in two days.
Thousands have lost their homes and businesses, Scott said, calling the damage “historic and catastrophic” with flooding that “surpassed levels seen during Tropical Storm Irene” in 2011.
“The devastation is far-reaching,” Scott said. “Although the coming days, weeks, and months will be incredibly difficult, we’ve faced challenges before, and Vermonters have risen to meet the moment. Whether during Irene, COVID, or other hardships, Vermonters have proven time and time again, we’re willing and able to step up.”
Scott warned that although the rain had stopped in many areas, the waters will not immediately recede.
“They may, in fact, continue to rise,” he said. “So I want to be clear: We are not out of the woods. This is nowhere near over.”
Biden spoke by phone individually with Scott, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell Tuesday evening about his commitment to deliver federal assistance, according to a White House pool report.
On East State Street, Ashley Davis, 47, walked with her dog Maddy and watched the water slowly rise.
”It’s higher than last night,” she said. “And if that dam goes...”
The nearby Wrightsville Dam was near capacity, officials had said, raising the threat of significantly more flooding.
“Every additional foot of water that goes over the spillway doubles the amount of water entering the city from the dam,” police warned on Facebook. “We are seeing a reduction of water in the downtown, Langdon Street and [Vermont State Employees Credit Union] areas so we have some capacity if we reach some overflow. We are continuing to monitor this situation.”
But in some positive news, the Winooski and North Branch rivers were receding Tuesday evening, and the threat of a dam breach had passed, according to the city of Montpelier.
“In the event of an unlikely release of water, the lower levels of the North Branch River would now be able to accommodate any excess water without causing more damage,” said an 8:30 p.m. update from the city.
Public works crews were scheduled to begin clearing mud and debris from roadways Wednesday morning, and the city will conduct inspections in the downtown area, according to the update.
Through the day, muddy brown water from the Winooski River flowed on the streets of Montpelier, obscuring vehicles and all but the tops of parking meters along streets where brick storefronts’ basements and lower floors were flooded. Some residents in the city of 8,000 slogged through the waist-high water; others canoed and kayaked along main streets to survey the scene. Shopkeepers took stock of damaged or lost goods.
Bryan Pfeiffer, a biologist who has lived in the Montpelier area for four decades, canoed around the downtown area and was appalled by what he saw. Even the city’s fire station was flooded.
“It’s really troubling when your fire station is underwater,” Pfeiffer said.
Similar scenes played out around the state.
“We sustained catastrophic damage. We just really took the brunt of the storm,” Ludlow Municipal Manager Brendan McNamara said, as he assessed the flood’s impact around the town of 1,500 residents.
“Thankfully we got through it with no loss of life,” he said, adding the damage was worse than during Tropical Storm Irene. “Ludlow will be fine. People are coming together and taking care of each other. We’ve been here before, and we will get through it.”
The state’s public safety secretary, Jennifer Morrison, said early on Tuesday that swift-water rescue teams had performed more than 100 rescues and remained busy.
“In many areas, the water conditions remain too dangerous for rescue by boat,” Morrison said. “Five helicopters from Vermont and New Hampshire national guards are in the air this morning assisting in operations. They are conducting evacuations in the hardest hit and remote areas that are not accessible by swift-water teams, and they are assisting as eyes in the sky.”
Morrison said there had been “countless road washouts” across the state, with the Montpelier-Barre area, as well as the Ludlow-Londonderry-Andover area hit the hardest.
No flood-reported deaths had been reported in the state.
About 70 people were evacuated from damaged buildings and cars, said Mike Cannon, program manager for Vermont Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. Seventeen animals were also rescued, he said.
“We still have reports of people trapped in flooded homes and vehicles,” he said. “We are operating 24 hours a day and we have been since 3 p.m. on Sunday.”
Around 3 a.m. Tuesday, a swift-water team from New Hampshire “performed an extremely high-risk rescue” in Waterbury, where a woman’s car was washed off the road after she drove around a barricade.
“That team took a considerable amount of time to safely rescue that woman from that vehicle,” he said.
Nearly 80 state roads were closed, up from 24 on Monday, according to state Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn.
“Once we can see what has been flooded, we will have a better idea as to the condition and potential damage and the work that’s required to restore that,” Flynn said.
Many roads along the Green Mountains and to the east remain impassable, and only slow improvements were expected, officials said.
“Turns out no one is safe from the catastrophic effects of climate change,” said author and runner Mirna Valerio. “Here I am in Winooski, recently moved out of Montpelier — a tiny, wonderful state capital at the confluence of several rivers — watching in horror as my old street becomes submerged in contaminated water. I’m also watching as the river I live nearby grows bigger, more angry, more dangerous, engulfing some of the tiny islands that dot its normally peaceful flow. This is really scary.”
Flooding was so severe in Montpelier that the police and fire departments moved operations to a neighboring community, Police Chief Eric W. Nordenson said Tuesday.
Three radio towers in Washington County used to dispatch fire and ambulances weren’t functioning, he said.
“Multiple water rescue teams are positioned in Montpelier and we urge the public to please stay out of the downtown and off city roads,” he said. “Our rescue crews, DPW staff, dispatchers and first responders are spread very thin and will need time to assess the damages.”
Nordenson said the Main Street Middle School gym was opened as a temporary shelter until buses could take people to a Red Cross shelter in Barre.
“Roads throughout the area continue to be closed, and travel is very dangerous at this time,” he said. “Please understand that all responders are at the max capacity and to only contact dispatch in an extreme emergency.”
The storm also forced a boil-water order in Montpelier, officials said.
“There is a strong possibility that your drinking water supply may become contaminated on the way to the tap,” city officials said. “This situation presents a significant health risk.”
City officials said the order will remain in effect until “the water system is able to demonstrate that the quality and quantity of the drinking water meets state and federal drinking water standards.”
Jeneé Osterheldt, Kevin Cullen, and Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Sarah Raza contributed to this report, and material from the Associated Press was used in it.