I’ve decided my long dormant food newsletter is the perfect vehicle for some notes on disaster journalism, something that has been on my mind this month.
The state of Vermont, and particularly the towns settled along the Green Mountains that cut a vertical line through the length of the state from Massachusetts to the south up to the Canadian border in the north, suffered catastrophic flooding earlier this month after a massive amount of rain fell in a relatively short period of time.
This pushed rivers up over their banks and into the villages that had been established on their banks 200 years ago. These villages have come to expect some periodic flooding, and occasionally catastrophic flooding, such as the state saw after Hurricane Irene in 2011 or in the great flood of 1927. The rivers last week didn’t quite rise to the same levels it did nearly a century ago, but they weren’t far off. As the climate shifts, intense flash flooding events will occur in this area with increasing frequency.
In the area I cover for the county-wide weekly, the News & Citizen, parts of my own home village of Jeffersonville and the neighboring village of Cambridge in the town of Cambridge flooded after the Lamoille River expanded rapidly early one Tuesday morning, pushing up over the Route 15 highway. I live in a duplex at the bottom of a hill that sits on top of a smaller hill up above the floodplain, so I was spared being affected by the flooding in that way.
The damage was worse in Johnson village that day, just northeast of Cambridge on Route 15 and even more densely built directly on the river. The flood destroyed parts of its public infrastructure—including its wastewater facility—the village’s medical center, and the town’s only grocery store.
The day the flood hit, my colleague and I went out into our respective villages to take stock of the destruction. I was not functionally distinguishable from the onlookers wandering around just to see how bad it was. I spoke to a few people, but there wasn’t much to say as they were trying to coax their dog through standing water and trying to carry what belongings they could from their flooded homes.
At one point, I found myself at an affordable housing complex for seniors. Men employed by the town’s ski resort were carrying an elderly woman over the knee-deep flood water. I waded to the building’s patio where I waited for the men to come out with the last resident left to evacuate. The resident had a wheelchair and didn’t want to leave the building. After a while, the men brought him down. I watched as they carried him across the water. I thought about taking out my phone and getting some photos. It was a charged moment. The image produced would be totally emblematic of how the growing frequency of natural disasters borne of the climate crisis would have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable. But I couldn’t do it. The resident was allowing himself to be carried from his home with as much grace as he could manage. To take a photo felt like it would flatten the moment and expose something deeply personal. I described the moment in my reporting but couldn’t expose him by name or reproduction of his photographic likeness.
I work for a collection of weekly print newspapers, and I’m one of two reporters responsible for filling up two of them with reporting on their overlapping coverage areas. As reporters from the one fully digital breaking news website in the state, the broader circulation weekly, and the national press descended on our coverage area, we did what we could. We put out a paper based on what we had seen that morning and what information we could get from the towns we hadn’t yet had time to inspect personally.
The next week, we published extensive reports on most of Lamoille County’s 10 towns, particularly those that had been hit hard in the flooding. I wrote broad-scope pieces on the varying levels of destruction and the community response to the destruction for Johnson and Cambridge, and I wrote about the farmers. Those with diverse crops who produced food for local consumption fared worse than those with federally subsidized monocrop operations.
This is what a weekly newspaper is good for. The broad scope, a collection of stories that develop from week to week, from month to month. Digital publications can do this too, of course, but they often begin with the inciting incident and expand outward. The weekly reporter can wait a few days and see how things develop. Not too long—there’s always the deadline—but that’s the pace at which most news moves out here. Selectboard meetings every other week, committee meetings in between. The miracles and catastrophes of daily life in between.
My colleague published a few digital-only stories in the week the flooding hit and the week following, but only to spread essential information about resources for the afflicted. The only other time we publish digital-only stories is when someone gets murdered in the county, which happens rarely.
The Friday following the initial flooding, I was tipped off that Sen. Peter Welch was going to take a tour of Johnson. All of the local electeds came out and those whose homes or businesses had been pulverized came out to impress upon him the severity of the situation, hoping to inspire some action and assistance. Welch was a great vehicle for gaining efficient access to the people and places necessary to understand the full width and depth of devastation in the town, but I hardly mention the senator in my reporting at all, though he was in many of the pictures I took. He was there only to listen and express sympathy with his constituents before returning to Washington, D.C., with a level of appreciation for what the flood had wrought upon his minorly populated state as he sought to encourage plentiful and timely emergency assistance for them from the federal apparatus.
Reporting in the wake of a disaster, regardless of scale, leaves a bad taste in the mouth of any journalist who thinks about what they’re doing. There’s that famous Janet Malcolm opening to The Journalist and the Murderer about the moral indefensibility of the profession, and there’s a certain truth to it, though the dynamic is often played out with much smaller stakes and far less drama for most working reporters, I imagine.
The Flood of 2023 wasn’t my first natural disaster either. Most people have at least a few natural disasters under their belt at this point. As a journalist, I covered the aftermath of the 2020 Derecho event in Iowa, where an inland hurricane devastated the state’s meager tree line, for Civil Eats. I wrote about both the mostly Congolese meatpacking plant workers who were displaced after their cheaply made homes were destroyed, and the storm’s connection to climate change.
When you’re a community journalist for a weekly newspaper for a sparsely populated, exceptionally rural area, it’s far more complicated than just getting the story. Reporting in this context is about developing relationships with people, some of whom occupy volunteer positions of some power within the municipal government. You hold them to account, you publish stories based on the emails they send to one another and other residents of the town, but you see them at the annual pie fundraiser held in the basement of the elementary school.
You try to describe, in the most direct language available and to the best of your knowledge, the material and social relations of their most immediate surroundings—the villages and towns, Vermont has little in the way of the county superstructure familiar to most United States residents—and the policy decisions that shape them.
A critical function of the local newspaper is and has historically been to establish the historical record. It’s not just the first draft of history, it often ends up being the only draft. Whether it’s a meeting in a stuffy town office or peering into the darkened, water-ruined living room as the sump pump drones away, the journalist is doing the same thing: creating the narrative.
People don’t mind the narrative-maker when meeting minutes are being placed into context or a new restaurant is opening, or really anytime the narrative-maker isn’t making them part of the narrative against their will. It can be a tense moment when the narrative-maker shows up in the wake of your very personal, very inconvenient, very expensive natural disaster and asks you about what you’ve lost.
Of course, there is a cold exchange value to articulating the many minor devastations amongst the multi-million infrastructure destruction. Endless individual fundraisers testing tragedy against accumulated social capital, one of the few accessible routes to recovery in the accelerating climate crisis, from which there is no escape even in relatively well-situated Vermont, as many have noted.
Still, the more someone suffers, the more attention will be brought to them regardless. The owner of Foote Brook farm—a great provider of organic produce in Johnson where acres of rich soil lie on a flat plain along the river — was in an understandably black mood when I interviewed him. He saw clearly how the utter devastation of everything he owned—not just the summer’s crop but machines and buildings and supplies—was just one of the thousand wounds he suffered from a food system stacked against him, and his attempts to grow and sell food outside of the agrichemical industrial complex.
I got to him two days after the flood, and I was late. The New York Times and The Boston Globe had already come through to dutifully document the destruction of the Flood of 2023. As far as I can tell, the Globe never used any of the material, and the Times published a photo of the ruined crops.
There is an elemental twinship between the fire and the flood. Both have been occurring with increased intensity and frequency due to the deteriorating ecosystem. When a home catches fire or it floods, there are levels to the severity of the damage. It was contained to the kitchen or it consumed the house. It only got in the basement or there were three feet in the first floor. The disasters diverge in their occupation of time. A fire can do its full work within a few hours. Once the water recedes, the ruin blooms within. Rot and mold. A few inches of water means replacing insulation and drywall and wood. A flood expands into the days and weeks following the event instead of consuming the instant.
As I was speaking to someone contemplating leaving their home of over three decades on my tour of Johnson, volunteers with the World Central Kitchen, the free-meals nonprofit whose presence marks every localized disaster as a globally significant catastrophe, approached us. They were handing out free meals. I turned it down, citing my position in the wreckage as a journalist, an observer and a note taker, not a helper or a homeowner.
I changed my mind after leaving the scene. It occurred to me that I was curious about the food, and I was hungry. I found the WCK food truck being manned by a local chef in a church parking lot and received a clamshell takeout container, no questions asked. It contained a portion of mac and cheese married with chicken in some kind of gravy. There was a particular warmth to it. Not rich but comforting. It was filling. It gave the body what it needed to be given.