Massive floods have swallowed up the Vermont town I love

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Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent book is “Borges and Me,” a memoir. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

As much of the world now knows, Vermont is under water. The rains that swept the state in the past week have been nothing less than biblical. Massive flooding has turned our sweet capital city, Montpelier, into a lake where cars are buried, with water reaching to the second story in many buildings.

Jay Parini  - Jay Parini

Jay Parini – Jay Parini

The air itself tingles with fear that the Winooski River will only get worse before things improve. More than seven inches of rain fell on this poor city in a single day, and the Wrightsville Dam, just north of Montpelier, might well burst.

Flooding throughout the state has affected communications, of course. Some radio towers are down. This is worse, people keep saying, than Hurricane Irene in 2011, a weather event that sticks in my own head as a terrible time for us all.

“What’s different for me is that Irene lasted about 24 hours,” said Gov. Phil Scott at a news conference on Monday. “We’re getting just as much rain, if not more, and it’s going on for days. That’s my concern. It’s not just the initial damage.”

Flooding has occurred in areas usually immune to such a thing, including the ski resort towns of Killington and Ludlow.  Many roads have been closed throughout the state, and emergency shelters have been set up in dozens of towns from Barre and Bethel to Jamaica and Randolph.

Residents of upscale Woodstock have been told to boil their water. Late in the day on Tuesday, although the rain had stopped, the flood waters were continuing to rise. And forecasts say that more rain is likely on the way for this waterlogged region.

I moved to Vermont 50 years ago, thinking it was high and dry, a place apart from the usual chaos of the world, protected from the kinds of weather events one read about in places like New Orleans or Texas or Florida. Vermont has seemed largely peaceful, a kind of rural idyll, with endless cows grazing in the fields, with rolling mountains that are, in summer, as verdant as their name, the Green Mountains.

The beautiful rivers – including the Winooski, the West and the White, the Otter Creek, the Lamoille, and the Missisquoi – have been largely sedate bodies of water. They usually proceed at a stately pace and rarely go wild except, briefly, in late spring, when snowmelt adds to their volume and swiftness.

I love the waterways of Vermont, and I spend a lot of time in my little boat on the Otter Creek. It’s my favorite activity:  floating quietly down the river, which opens into Lake Champlain, one of the most glorious lakes in the northeastern part of the United States – a skinny body of water over 120 miles long that stretches from Canada to Whitehall, New York, where it pours into a canal that leads to the Hudson River.

Several days ago, I went onto Lake Champlain on a Saturday afternoon with my wife. It would usually be crowded with sailboats, kayaks, canoes, and motorboats, a summer playground.  Eerily, we were the only boat in sight, and it was soon obvious why this was so.

The air was thick with smoke from the Canadian wildfires, which made the entire northeast a danger zone. I wondered if we should just turn around and go back to the dock, but we persisted, floating in the middle of the lake as the rancid smoke, a kind of hellish smog that tore at the lungs, settled on the water. The fact that we are not separate from the effects of climate change hit me hard.

It’s perhaps too easy to blame the Canadian wildfires on climate change alone. There are complicated factors at work here, as Isabella Kaminski recently noted in a piece for the BBC.

But apparently half of Canadian fires are ignited by lightning strikes, and increased lightning is one of many things worsened by climate change.

The climate change issue is hardly news. Human produced greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, trap the heat overhead. Overheated air magnifies the effect of evaporation. We’ve been seeing more intense weather events in Vermont for some years now.

The Bible itself often speaks of fire and flood as signs of the last days. In the 17th chapter of Luke’s gospel, we read that people were eating and drinking, getting married, when the floods came “and destroyed them all.”  The gospel writer also refers to the fires of sulfur that rained down on Sodom in the time of Lot.

With the biblical flooding and wildfires that seem part of life in Vermont in the summer of 2023, it’s hard not at least to feel that we too are approaching some kind of end times. Perhaps our despoiling of the planet has, at last, come home to roost.

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