Vermont officials confirm 2nd death caused by July flooding

By MAGGIE CASSIDY

VtDigger

Published: 08-02-2023 9:03 AM

State officials on Tuesday morning confirmed a second death related to July’s catastrophic flooding in Vermont.

“We have had our second flood-related death confirmed,” Public Safety Commissioner Jennifer Morrison said during a regular press conference in Berlin on the state’s flood response. “Sixty-seven-year-old Robert Kerker, of New York state, drowned in the swollen waters of Stony Brook near Stockbridge while hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

In a press release Friday night, Vermont State Police had said an “initial investigation” showed Kerker’s death was “related to the severe flooding” last month. Search crews discovered his body on Friday afternoon. 

Authorities have said that Kerker, who lived in Rhinebeck, New York, was hiking the trail and was last seen July 9, the day that heavy rains started in Vermont.

He was known to have been at the Inn at Long Trail in Killington that day and a witness that night saw him farther east on the trail at the Stony Brook Shelter, police said.

“The witness said severe rain and flooding that struck Vermont starting July 10 had elevated water levels on the Stony Brook and made the trail’s crossing of the stream dangerous,” police said in Friday night’s release. “Mr. Kerker is not known to have been seen again following that encounter.”

Emergency responders retrieved Kerker’s body about 1.5 miles downstream on Friday, police said.

In a press release issued Tuesday after Morrison’s comments, Vermont State Police said an autopsy conducted by the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office found that Kerker’s cause of death “was a probable drowning, and the manner of death an accident that occurred when Mr. Kerker was caught in the current of a brook” while hiking the trail in the storms.

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Stephen Davoll, 63, suffered the first-known flood fatality on July 12, when he drowned in his flooded basement in Barre, officials have said. 

In response to a question at Tuesday’s press conference, Morrison said a “preliminary assessment” found that the death of 25-year-old Katie Hartnett, of Burlington, was not caused by flooding. Vermont State Police reported last month that Hartnett died after slipping and falling into the Huntington River in Richmond on July 14. Her body was recovered from the river the next day.

Morrison said she was not sure whether the final investigation into Hartnett’s death was complete. 

Emergency officials have said that the determinations of whether deaths are formally linked to flooding are based on a number of factors, including autopsy results and federal determinations of the disaster’s “incident period.” 

Families of flood victims in counties covered by the federal disaster declaration may be eligible for grants for funeral expenses, Vermont Emergency Management spokesperson Mark Bosma said last month.