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Engorged Lake Champlain wears away at Vermonters

Lake Champlain’s rising waters have forced many Vermonters, such as Jim Paulsen (above) of Burlington, to cope with flooding. Lake Champlain’s rising waters have forced many Vermonters, such as Jim Paulsen (above) of Burlington, to cope with flooding. (Toby Talbot/ Associated Press)
By John Curran
Associated Press / May 30, 2011

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COLCHESTER, Vt. — Minnows swim in the driveway, and fat carp are now breeding in the 2-foot floodwaters that cover the street. Some days, the only way Buzz Hoerr can get out of his home is by rowboat, paddling 200 feet to a grassy spot across the street where he and others park their cars to keep them dry.

The vessels are pulled up on driveways and lawns of the handful of houses that are still occupied — the ones with sandbags surrounding them, pumps draining water, unholy piles of driftwood and tree limbs pushed up onto lake-facing patios.

For Hoerr and hundreds of others forced to cope with unprecedented flooding, this is the new normal on Lake Champlain.

“It is Lake Champlain water torture,’’ said Hoerr, a 57-year-old father of two. “Someone said to me today, ‘It’s like cutting off a dog’s tail an inch at a time so it won’t hurt too much.’ ’’

Heavy snowmelt and the rainiest spring ever noted here have combined to send the lake to its highest levels on record. Hundreds of businesses, summer camps, cottages, and year-round homes along the lake’s New York and Vermont shores have been affected — to varying degrees — for more than a month.

Some 500 homes have been destroyed or damaged in Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin said earlier this month. No updated figures have been released.

No one has died. Everyone here is quick to acknowledge that the damages pale when compared with the carnage of Joplin, Mo., the tornado-stricken towns of Alabama, and imperiled cities along the Mississippi River.

But this is a slow-moving catastrophe. And it has no end in sight.

In fits and starts, the freshwater lake — 120 miles long and up to 400 feet deep — is draining northward, ever so slowly, into the Richelieu River in Quebec and the St. Lawrence River beyond. But it could take until July to drop below flood stage.

It passed flood stage — 100 feet above sea level — in mid-April, peaked at more than 103 feet on May 6 and has hovered just below that for weeks.

The water on Hoerr’s street, Broadlake Road, has fluctuated, but has not been low enough to drive through. About five of the 17 houses in the neighborhood are still occupied.

The holdouts are enduring inconvenience, stress, and moods that rise and fall with the US Geological Survey’s online lake level chart, which gives hourly updates.

“It’s a month without taking a shower indoors, without washing dishes or doing laundry indoors,’’ said Bryan Ducharme, 46, who lives next door to Hoerr.

His flooded septic tanks are leaking. Hoping to avoid overwhelming his septic system, he and his wife and their three sons sometimes go to McDonald’s to use the bathroom. They use an outside shower to bathe — and more.

“Every morning, my wife is outside in her bathing suit, taking a shower in the outside shower, washing the dishes when it’s 40 degrees out. It gets old after a while,’’ he said.

Down the street, Susan Andrus, 67, and her husband, William, were so rattled one night when water-borne logs smashed into their home that they left at 1:30 a.m., walked through the floodwaters to their car, and slept in it.

They spent nine days out of the lakefront home, but they are back now, watching as their lake-facing screened-in porch — screens ripped, roof supports separated, floor sinking — threatens to detach from the house entirely.

Insurance adjusters have been through the house, but no firm assessment of damages can be reached until the water recedes. No one knows when that will be.

“You’re roughing it,’’ Susan Andrus said. “You’re going to the laundromat and bringing in groceries by boat and bags, and carrying everything. You have to go to the post office to get your mail, no newspaper. We don’t get the TV because the satellite’s on the roof of the porch, so we have no television. I don’t know what’s happening or who won ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ ’’

Like her neighbors, she knows the flooding is a costly inconvenience, not a catastrophe.

“This we can live through,’’ she said.

Still, the stress is tangible, said Hoerr, who has two teenagers.

“It’s one thing to deal with for a day or a week. But when it goes on five weeks, it’s very wearing, mentally,’’ he said. “And it pops up in all sorts of ways.’’

Especially in the children.

“They’re just frustrated they can’t live their normal lives,’’ Hoerr said. “They can’t have friends come over. They can’t have somebody pick them up easily. You can’t order pizza. Just stuff you normally do to manage your life is out the window. You have to adjust all the time.

“I’m sure we’ll all be better, tighter as a family for this,’’ he said. “We’d just like it to happen as soon as possible.’’

Ducharme says he has seen the stress in neighbors.

“We’ve had couples screaming at each other here, unloading sandbags, exhausted, just blowing their tops,’’ he said. “We haven’t gotten to that point, but there are a lot of people in the neighborhood who are getting fried.’’

Relief, however, is not in sight. Persistent rainy weather has aggravated the problem. Specialists say it takes 20 days of normal weather conditions for the lake level to drop by a foot.

“We’ve had so many long-duration rain events, it’s built a large amount of water and it’s going to take a long time before it gets below flood stage,’’ said Eric Evenson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in South Burlington. “Optimistically, it’ll be another 40 days to get below flood stage, with normal conditions.’’