Families hit hard by flooding cope with loss while planning for future

Casey Mispel carries her son Joe, 3, while she and her daughter Faith, 13, walk toward their flood-damaged home in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. The family was on vacation in Maine on July 10 when heavy rain caused their property to flood, damaging their home and most of their belongings. Friends and neighbors worked to help save what they could, including the Mispels’ three cats, two rabbits, and two ferrets. “Everybody’s safe, so that’s what’s important,” Casey Mispel said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Casey Mispel carries her son Joe, 3, while she and her daughter Faith, 13, walk toward their flood-damaged home in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. The family was on vacation in Maine on July 10 when heavy rain caused their property to flood, damaging their home and most of their belongings. Friends and neighbors worked to help save what they could, including the Mispels’ three cats, two rabbits, and two ferrets. “Everybody’s safe, so that’s what’s important,” Casey Mispel said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

FEMA inspectors Alex Vega, left, and Carlos Zapata assess the flood damage inside the Mispels’ home in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. The Mispels moved into the home about five years ago and have constantly been making improvements, including installing new flooring this summer and planting blueberry bushes that fruited for the first time this year and are now inedible. “We can rebuild,” Casey Mispel said, but “there’s sentimental stuff you can’t replace.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

FEMA inspectors Alex Vega, left, and Carlos Zapata assess the flood damage inside the Mispels’ home in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. The Mispels moved into the home about five years ago and have constantly been making improvements, including installing new flooring this summer and planting blueberry bushes that fruited for the first time this year and are now inedible. “We can rebuild,” Casey Mispel said, but “there’s sentimental stuff you can’t replace.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

From left, Nathan Mispel holds stuffed animals handed to him by his son Joe, 3, while his wife Casey and daughter Faith, 13, look through bags of clean laundry dropped off by a family friend at their home in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. “People have really rallied behind us,” Nathan Mispel said. “It’s been an emotional rollercoaster.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

From left, Nathan Mispel holds stuffed animals handed to him by his son Joe, 3, while his wife Casey and daughter Faith, 13, look through bags of clean laundry dropped off by a family friend at their home in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. “People have really rallied behind us,” Nathan Mispel said. “It’s been an emotional rollercoaster.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus)

A high water line is visible inches from the roof of the Mispel family’s Chevrolet Tahoe in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. Floodwater damaged the family’s home and two cars along with equipment Nathan Mispel uses in his lawn care business. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A high water line is visible inches from the roof of the Mispel family’s Chevrolet Tahoe in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. Floodwater damaged the family’s home and two cars along with equipment Nathan Mispel uses in his lawn care business. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Julie Melendy looks at a culvert that is meant to allow water from a spring to flow into the Ottauquechee River on the other side of Route 4, but has allowed overflow from the river to flood her family’s property in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. Melendy said she has made calls to the state to ask them to do something about the culvert, which also contributed to flooding on the property during Irene, even though they are located outside of a designated flood hazard area on the FEMA flood map. “My grandchildren have been flooded twice,” she said. “They will not be flooded again.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Julie Melendy looks at a culvert that is meant to allow water from a spring to flow into the Ottauquechee River on the other side of Route 4, but has allowed overflow from the river to flood her family’s property in Bridgewater, Vt., on Monday, July 17, 2023. Melendy said she has made calls to the state to ask them to do something about the culvert, which also contributed to flooding on the property during Irene, even though they are located outside of a designated flood hazard area on the FEMA flood map. “My grandchildren have been flooded twice,” she said. “They will not be flooded again.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer Michelle Novelle, center, of Boston, Mass., hugs Nancy Kessling, of Plymouth, Vt., after helping her and Ken Cooper, right, also of Plymouth, navigate various charitable organizations and state and federal agencies during a Multi-Agency Resource Center at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Community members were able to pick up food and water, cleaning supplies and water test kits, and were also able to access assistance with filing paperwork and mental health counseling. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer Michelle Novelle, center, of Boston, Mass., hugs Nancy Kessling, of Plymouth, Vt., after helping her and Ken Cooper, right, also of Plymouth, navigate various charitable organizations and state and federal agencies during a Multi-Agency Resource Center at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Community members were able to pick up food and water, cleaning supplies and water test kits, and were also able to access assistance with filing paperwork and mental health counseling. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

FEMA employee Diana French, left, helps Elisabeth and Stephen Hill, of Bridgewater Center, Vt., through filing paperwork to apply for disaster assistance during a Multi-Agency Resource Center at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. In addition to FEMA, resources are available to community members through the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and several Vermont state agencies. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

FEMA employee Diana French, left, helps Elisabeth and Stephen Hill, of Bridgewater Center, Vt., through filing paperwork to apply for disaster assistance during a Multi-Agency Resource Center at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, Vt., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. In addition to FEMA, resources are available to community members through the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and several Vermont state agencies. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

People check on the Mispels' flooded home along Route 4 in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., on Monday, July 10, 2023. The family was on a camping trip in Maine during the storm. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

People check on the Mispels' flooded home along Route 4 in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., on Monday, July 10, 2023. The family was on a camping trip in Maine during the storm. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali) Hasan Jamali—AP

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-24-2023 6:07 PM

BRIDGEWATER — When the Mispel family returned home early from what was supposed to be a week-long family vacation in Maine on July 11, they had to move pieces of what had been the deck of their above-ground pool in order to park in their driveway.

Their mobile home and attached addition situated off Route 4 in Bridgewater Corners, west of Long Trail Brewery, had been flooded with water that was chest-deep in some places after a culvert that sits alongside the eastern part of the property carried rushing water from the Ottauquechee River underneath Route 4 on July 10.

“We’re homeless,” Nathan Mispel, 38, said Wednesday.

He said he’s anxious to get moving on tearing down the mobile home and rebuilding before cold weather sets in, but they can’t begin until they get approved for federal assistance and they can’t get approved for federal assistance until they receive documentation from their insurance company saying that it refuses to cover the damage.

Though the family of five and their three dogs weren’t home when the floods hit, their three cats and two bunnies were. That Monday friends and family waded through the floodwaters and, though one cat didn’t turn up until the next morning, all the pets were safe.

Still the family has lost a lot. In addition to the mobile home, which this week sat moldering in the heat, the family also lost two cars, only one of which was insured, as well as Nathan Mispel’s tools for his property management business, which he expects will be partially covered by his business insurance.

The electrical system in the garage also was ruined.

“It’s a waiting game now,” Casey Mispel, 37, said on Wednesday in an interview on the property where the family is now living out of their camper.

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Casey Mispel’s parents live next door, and their home escaped serious damage in the flooding. The Mispels are able to hook on to electricity and water on site, but the camper won’t suffice during winter.

The Mispels were among the Vermonters who were digging out from the flooding this week. In the Upper Valley, most residents were spared the complete loss that the Mispels experienced, but several households in the Woodstock and Chelsea areas were working on repairs last week.

Some people are able to live in their homes while repairs are made, but others had to wait, leading them to lean on friends and family members amid a preexisting housing shortage.

“Homelessness is fundamentally a housing problem,” Anne Sosin, a public health practitioner and researcher at Dartmouth College, said.

The region already suffers from a lack of housing. As a state, Vermont had the second-highest rate of homelessness in the nation in 2022, and it saw an 18.5% increase in 2023. Going into this month’s flooding, there was a shortage of as much as 40,000 housing units in the state and 10,000 in the Upper Valley, including both Vermont and New Hampshire parts of the region.

“This recent flooding will deplete and damage our insufficient and aging stock of housing,” she said.

‘I got my share of damage’

In Chelsea, Dean Martin and his niece were living for the summer in a home that belonged to Martin’s late mother. They lost the entire mechanical system when the basement flooded on July 10, including a hot water heater, the electrical system and a backup generator.

A 66-year-old resident of San Jose, Calif., Martin is staying in Chelsea this summer while he builds a cabin on a hill there. Without electricity, Martin and his niece have moved out temporarily. He moved in with some friends and his niece was staying with her daughter when Martin was interviewed last Tuesday. He was hopeful that the electrical work would be done by the end of the week, so they could move back.

The home sits along Route 110 in the heart of Chelsea, which was hard hit by rising flood waters on July 10, the first of two days of the worst of the flooding in the Upper Valley.

“Everybody’s cellars were flooded,” Martin said in a phone interview.

The property did not have flood insurance.

“We’ll figure something out,” Martin said when asked about the expense of the repairs.

The family does plan to make some changes to prevent something similar from happening again.

“I don’t think the mechanicals are going to go back into the basement,” he said. “We’re getting creative about how we can put them above.”

Snook Downing’s Chelsea home on Route 110 and along the First Branch of the White River also took on four feet of water in the basement. Though his electrical box wasn’t affected, he lost his hot water heater and a shed attached to the back of his house.

“I got my share of damage,” Downing, who is 76 and retired, said in a phone interview last week. Noting that he was getting sick of using washcloths to wash up, he said, “I got to get someone in here to get me some hot water.”

Downing said he couldn’t be sure what it will cost to fix up his house, where he lives with his corgi, Peewee, but he estimated, “thousands.”

He had already had someone knock down what was remaining of the shed, from which he was able to recover some tools. There are no holes in the wall the shed shared with the house. It’s just a matter of redoing the back wall of the house, he said.

“I think I’ve covered the bases that I can,” he said. Now he’s “basically waiting to hear what FEMA might or might not do.”

Tracy Simon, Chelsea’s emergency management coordinator, said the town had some residences that were “moderately impacted” by the flooding, although the extent was still being assessed when she spoke last week.

“We’re in the marathon phase of recovery not the sprint,” she said.

Simon encouraged anyone who had a submerged electrical panel to get it checked out and urged people to throw out things that got wet in the flooding rather than wait for them to mold.

“If you had water damage, you need to take it seriously,” she said.

Simon also urged people to prepare for disasters ahead of time by having a bag packed with three days of clothing and any medications. In addition, she urged people to set aside an emergency fund, which she acknowledged is difficult for people on fixed incomes or living paycheck to paycheck.

The “federal government doesn’t drive down the street and give money out,” she said. “Federal flood assistance takes weeks and months to get to you.”

Meanwhile, she said, “you’re on the hook for the financial stuff right up front.”

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration on July 14 for six Vermont counties including Windsor, where Bridgewater sits. On Friday, the administration added two more counties to the list including Orange County, of which Chelsea is the seat.

People in the eight counties who have experienced flood damage can apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance. Residents of the affected counties may be eligible for disaster assistance, including support for home repairs, replacement and temporary lodging.

Briana Summer Fenton, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said Thursday that she couldn’t say how long it would take for such assistance to arrive for each household requesting it. It “definitely varies,” she said.

As of Thursday, FEMA had received nearly 1,900 valid registrations and dispersed nearly $715,000 for individuals and household assistance stemming from the Vermont floods this month, Fenton said.

FEMA was among the organizations present last week at a multi-agency resource center set up at Woodstock Union High School. FEMA officials were helping people fill out applications, which also can be completed online at DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 800-621-3362. In addition, the Vermont Department of Health was handing out water testing kits for people with wells and the Red Cross was offering food, water and clean-up supplies such as rakes, shovels and bleach.

Caroline King, executive director of the Red Cross branch in Northern and Eastern Maine, sat at a table near the entrance to the school gym. She described the center as “one-stop shopping” for people affected by the flooding.

The Red Cross had about 200 people, mostly volunteers, in the state to assist with the flood response, King said, adding that she hopes she never has to have the organization come to her own home.

‘Start to heal’

In addition to the Mispels, two other families saw serious damage to their Bridgewater homes, said Josh Maxham, Bridgewater’s emergency management coordinator. Although one of those families was home during the storm and had to be rescued by the Hartford swift water rescue team, both are second homeowners, so have alternative places to live.

“I don’t think it was quite as bad as Irene, but very, very close,” Maxham said.

East on Route 4, the Mispels’ ruined home sat waiting for demolition last week. They can’t take it down before they get the money from FEMA, and they can’t get the money from FEMA until they get the note from the insurance company denying coverage. Nathan Mispel said he spoke with their insurer, State Farm, and that he was told the home won’t be covered, but he has yet to receive that determination in writing.

Nathan Mispel described the experience as an “emotional rollercoaster.”

This isn’t the first time the family has lived through flooding. They were living in an addition on Casey’s parents’ home during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

They were completely flooded out then and relocated to a rental on Route 100A until Casey’s godparents gave them the mobile home, which they then sited on Casey’s parents’ property.

“God brought us here,” Nathan Mispel said. “It was a miracle.”

The couple, now married for 18 years, said they were very happy in the mobile home where they lived with their three children: Brandon, 16; Faith, 13; and Joseph, 3. The children were homeschooled there. After Irene, Brandon refused to leave home to attend kindergarten because he feared his home would be lost if he left, Casey said.

“This house was a house of peace,” Nathan said. No matter what chaos may have been going on in the outside world, the home where they lived for about four years offered them the “joy of family together.”

Now the Mispels find themselves comforting their children.

The uninsured car had been intended to be Brandon’s first. Joseph gets upset because he thinks people are stealing their things, when in fact many items are so damaged they have to be thrown out, although some batteries survived the flood and a toy ride-on John Deere tractor still works. But when it rains, Joseph seeks to bring his things into the camper to protect them.

“You have your moments where you just want to go home,” Casey said. “It’s hard to watch your kids pick through and try to find what they can save out of it.”

Meanwhile, the shell of their former “safe space” sits, waiting to be demolished.

“Once it’s gone,” Casey said, the family can “start to heal from it.”

Given all they’ve put into the place and the happiness they’ve experienced there, they can’t imagine going anywhere else. They plan to rebuild on a higher foundation that would put the home level with the road.

“We’re going to be better off,” Nathan said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.