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Johnson Starts on the Road to Recovery

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Published July 21, 2023 at 5:32 p.m.
Updated July 26, 2023 at 1:59 p.m.


Red Cross volunteers loading supplies - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Red Cross volunteers loading supplies
In early July, town officials in Johnson were making plans to spruce up their downtown with flowers and a mural. They were also gearing up to celebrate the completion of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, a 93-mile recreation path that runs through town.

Gov. Phil Scott was going to travel the entire length, from Swanton to St. Johnsbury, by bike. The town planned to welcome him with cold water and ice cream.

The July 10 flood put those plans — and just about everything else — on hold. A week after the storm, Johnson still didn’t have a functioning municipal building, wastewater plant or post office. Instead of discussing flowers, officials were texting, multiple times a day, about trash removal.



More removed than other heavy-hit towns, Johnson hasn’t been swarming with volunteers helping to muck out businesses and homes. But those in the town say they’re determined to bounce back. Seven Days spent a day there earlier this week to see how the cleanup effort was going.
The center of Johnson was still a work zone on Tuesday as heavy trucks rumbled down Lower Main Street and residents stacked ruined belongings on curbs. A national relief organization, World Central Kitchen, was handing out meals in a parking lot. Massive storage containers and dumpsters sat outside Sterling Market, the town grocery store that was devastated by floodwaters from the nearby Gihon River. Despite a sign out front that promised a future reopening, some residents were skeptical. The store had flooded three times before, and maybe this would be the last.

The people in charge wouldn’t say. Two company higher-ups who were parked in an SUV near the store told a Seven Days reporter that only the owner could answer questions, and he was on vacation in Aruba.

There’s similar uncertainty about when other vital services will return. The town offices won’t be open for months. Neither will the library, though its collection of 15,000 books largely made it out unscathed. The building itself will need repairs, so staff are holding events outside, weather permitting.

The wastewater plant was devastated and still isn’t back online, meaning untreated sewage is flowing into waterways. A graphic on the town website reminds people to “Only Flush the Three P’s: Pee, Poop and Toilet Paper!”

Just up the hill at the Johnson Elementary School, the American Red Cross had opened a resource center to address immediate needs, a sort of one-stop shop where people could find information about temporary housing and grab a free meal. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had a table there, as did the United Way and state departments of labor and fire safety. Outside, Red Cross volunteers from Nebraska were handing out plastic totes full of cleaning supplies.

Two women pulled up in a black Scion xD that was already packed with items salvaged from their flooded homes. They managed to find room for a tote, a rake and a shovel from the center.

“It’s awesome that they actually have stuff like this available,” one woman said. She and her friend had only heard about the place an hour earlier. “We’re gonna get our husbands and come back,” she said.
Standing nearby was Katie Farineau, the town’s volunteer coordinator, who had been helping the women inside. She’d had to explain to them what FEMA was, Farineau said.

“People haven’t gone through this,” she said. “It breaks your heart, just having some of these initial conversations.”

That day, Farineau had dispatched volunteers to remote areas of town to document damage and what residents needed for cleanup. Farineau, who previously researched disaster responses with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, planned to submit the data to the state, which would use it to determine what kind of help Johnson needs, be it heavy machinery or mold cleanup experts.

“There’s a lot of help that we need, and now’s the time for the state to send that help in,” she said.

Johnson Selectboard Chair Beth Foy, the town’s emergency information officer, was also thinking about data. From her makeshift office at Vermont State University’s Johnson campus, she had just attended a briefing in which state officials had discussed ways to measure the flood’s impact. FEMA was tracking debris removal; Vermont 211 was tallying damaged households.

Foy was concerned about displaced residents, particularly the low-income tenants who lived in the hard-hit apartment buildings downtown. She feared that their needs wouldn’t be reflected in the data.



“It's a week out, and anyone who’s a renter, they're gone,” Foy said. “I worry that we’re pretty significantly understating the problem.”
Kitty Toll (left) and Gregory Tatro speaking to a volunteer at the donation center - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Kitty Toll (left) and Gregory Tatro speaking to a volunteer at the donation center
Back downtown, Gregory Tatro was giving a tour of the buildings owned by Jenna’s Promise, a nonprofit that provides job training and housing to people with substance-use disorder. The organization is named after Jenna Rae Tatro, Gregory’s sister, who died of an opioid overdose in 2019. Jenna’s Promise board member Kitty Toll, a former state rep and candidate for lieutenant governor, was along for the ride.

Tatro’s first stop was JP’s Promising Goods, a discount store that employs people in recovery. The store didn’t flood, and the Tatros were letting volunteers use the warehouse as a donation center. At least a dozen tables were piled high with canned goods, bottles of water, clothing and toiletries, all free for the taking. One woman browsed the offerings as a torrential rain soaked the already-saturated ground outside.

Tatro and Toll rushed back to the car and drove to Jenna’s Coffee House, the nonprofit’s cafe on Main Street. The first floor had been spared, and the cafe was back open, but the basement was another story. Water destroyed about $30,000 worth of equipment belowground, including a large grease trap that exploded from the force of the water. The room still stank of sewage, and one wall had recently sprouted cotton candy-colored mold. In lieu of a mask, Toll pulled her shirt over her mouth and nose.

Another of the nonprofit’s buildings, a residential treatment center called Rae of Hope, also flooded. Clients live there when they first start recovery, and without that space, the program can’t accept anyone else, Tatro said. He wasn’t sure how long the six existing clients would be displaced.

Tatro’s last stop was the Johnson Health Center, the only doctor’s office in town. The center, which provides addiction recovery services in addition to primary care, works closely with Jenna’s Promise.

Four feet of water had destroyed everything except a refrigerator storing vaccines that Geoffrey Butler, the center’s executive director, had grabbed in his hasty exit. The center, on Lower Main Street, had only been open for about eight months before the flood.
The building was nearly empty on the day Tatro dropped in. A lone exam table sat in one room; a naloxone dispenser was still affixed to a wall. Contractors had removed much of the damaged Sheetrock, exposing the studs and wiring. The building almost looked like it was under construction instead of being torn apart.

The center has switched to telehealth and will likely begin borrowing space from Jenna’s Promise to see patients in person. In a follow-up interview, Butler said he and his wife, Caroline, a nurse practitioner at the center, are still considering whether they want to reopen next to the river.

“The thought of rebuilding in that same spot and having this happen again in five, 10 years is a little overwhelming,” Butler said. “We put so much of ourselves into that building, you know: heart, soul, sweat and tears.”

Back at the center, Tatro told Toll he’s confident that Jenna’s Promise and the center will rebuild, just as the rest of the town will.

“We’re gonna get back up because that ultimately is the story of the people we’re serving,” he said. “In a real sense, this is a metaphor for recovery.”
A crowd forming at Johnson's Tuesday Night Live - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • A crowd forming at Johnson's Tuesday Night Live
That process was already beginning. Later that evening, as a light drizzle fell, a small crowd gathered in a field next to the school for Tuesday Night Live, a weekly concert series with food trucks and vendors. A local restaurant owner was there, and a village trustee. Farineau, the volunteer coordinator, came, too, grabbing takeout for her ride back home to Burlington.

Conversations drifted to the flood and the cleanup still to come. But mostly, it was a time to feel normal again.

“Humans of Johnson!” Hannah Miller, the evening’s emcee, belted into the microphone.

It was a simple rallying cry but a needed one. The crowd applauded and cheered.

Correction, July 23: An earlier version of this story misnamed the Tuesday night event in Johnson.

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