Spotlight on Johnson: A Community Hard Hit by Flooding Works to Rebuild
Johnson Selectboard Chair Beth Foy (left) and Postmaster Jane Draper in front of temporary mobile post office, image credit: Molly Walsh
From a distance it could be mistaken for a food truck. But the spiffy white vehicle parked in Johnson is not serving up burgers. It’s doling out mail and a sense of optimism in a town where flood waters last month inundated homes, businesses, and public buildings including the U.S. Post Office.
The temporary facility opened in a mobile post office truck July 24, two weeks after torrential rains fell over Vermont. It’s a small fix in a community facing extensive rebuilding. But with sprays of petunias out front and a crisp U.S. flag flying on the front end, the truck has delivered a morale boost along with the mail, according to Jane Draper, Johnson postmaster.
“It is working fantastic for the customers, giving the community back a little normalcy,” Draper said. “I think it gets them their medications, their FEMA letters, their Red Cross letters, their town letters, everything that they need.”
The chair of the local selectboard, Beth Foy, agreed. It’s “really important” for residents to be able to pick up their mail at a time when important documents related to flood recovery are arriving daily, she said. It’s also heartening that with so many complex problems to solve, the town has tackled the post office problem with an interim solution that seems to be generating a thumbs up. “People love it,” Foy said.
The truck is parked in the same lot that served the regular post office, which now sits empty. It’s unclear whether it can reopen in the vacant space at the Johnson Shopping Center on Lower Main Street. The disaster brought roughly eight feet of water from the nearby Lamoille River into the shopping center and also flooded other tenants, including one of the few places to buy groceries locally, Sterling Market. The grocery store has been completely emptied out and the store website says it’s uncertain what the future holds for the location.
The flood also knocked out the village of Johnson wastewater treatment plant and flooded the first floor of the town office building, a local health clinic, and approximately 100 households.
Rebuilding is a daunting task, said Foy. On a tour of the town last week with government and nonprofit officials, Foy pointed to flooded out homes, apartments, and mobile homes. “They are totally displaced,” she said, referring to residents of washed-out residences in a local mobile home park. Ditto for residents of some of the apartments and homes along and nearby Railroad Street, all close to the river. “This whole neighborhood was decimated,” Foy said, pointing to houses where water surged up to ceilings.
She expects some of the homes will be declared a total loss and qualify for buy-outs through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but that process is laden with uncertainty. The town is also pursuing funds from FEMA and other sources to help with damaged public infrastructure including the local wastewater treatment plant, which has flooded three times since it was constructed in 1995 and may need to be moved. The plant is currently operating at a rudimentary level through a temporary fix.
Recognizing the complexity of need in hard-hit communities, the Vermont Community Foundation VT Flood Response & Recovery Fund 2023 has stepped in with assistance for Johnson and nearby communities. While the fund was not involved in the post office solution, it has helped on a number of other fronts.
Through the generosity of all who have contributed to the fund, grant money helped pay for the dumpsters and garbage trucks that hauled out the first wave of trash lining the streets of Johnson after buildings were mucked out. The haul-out addressed a health and safety issue and gave the town a feeling of accomplishment that lightened the weight of the long recovery ahead, said Foy. “It was tangible.”
The fund has also granted money to the Johnson Public Library, which was flooded but is expected to reopen. In the meantime, the town plans to open a temporary library space at the nearby Masonic Temple building where people can hold meetings, get on the internet, and access other library services. “The grant money is helping us to re-establish the community services that the library provides and is helping us do so quickly,” Foy said.
The fund has also granted money to replace equipment at the flooded Johnson Health Center, and to support its sister organization, Jenna’s Promise, which was impacted by the floods and provides housing, substance use disorder treatment, job training, and other services at its property in Johnson.
Other grantees include the Lamoille Community House, which offers shelter and services to people experiencing homelessness; and nonprofits such as the United Way of Lamoille County, Lamoille Housing Partnership, and Central Vermont Council on Aging to help with immediate flood relief, rebuilding of flood-damaged housing, and delivery of meals to older Vermonters, among other needs.
Support from the flood fund has been a boost to Johnson, said Foy. “Supporting the housing need, the access to internet and other basic needs such as food and clothing through the organizations that have received funding really helps fill the gap where those services may not otherwise be available to individuals and families through traditional means. And we have nothing if we don’t have our community.”
She thanked all who have contributed to the flood fund, along with many volunteers who have stepped up. “The outpouring of support from Vermonters and people all across the United States and the world to help support the needs of our community is really heartwarming,” Foy said.
Foy added: “We’re very grateful to the Vermont Community Foundation for helping to support the needs of our community. Together we’ll continue to progress in this long journey of recovery.”
For a full list of grants from the VT Flood Response & Recovery Fund 2023 go to vtfloodresponse.org/grantees.