Underlying all my artwork is my love for photography. It is the basis from which all things spring for me. At heart, in my fantasies, I would love to be a photojournalist covering natural disasters or other high-intensity action situations. When the catastrophic floods hit Vermont on July 10, 2023, I was not here to venture out with my camera as I have done for every other storm, whether it was tropical storm Irene or the many blizzards I've photographed. I was out of town, having flown the night before, through the storm that caused the flooding. I came home 12 days later to a scene I've only ever witnessed on TV or in the newspapers. The devastation was unimaginable. It's always an odd feeling when there's a death or disaster, and your world either freezes or is altered beyond recognition. It feels that the world should stop so there's space and time to learn how to form oneself around the loss. The fact that life goes on despite death and disaster feels a bit like an affront. It feels like a part of me whispers "Hey - can't you see how intense this is - stop moving - I need to just breathe a minute...." I remember when my dad died; it was a viscerally unsettling to emerge out of my grief and realize the world had continued moving on. New neighbors had moved in across the street that I wasn't aware of, the sunflowers had blossomed in the garden and I hadn't noticed them, a pregnant woman's belly had grown...It was like crawling up out of a still, dark cave into a new world of movement and light. Here in Montpelier, it doesn't feel like that dark grief of death - rather, it's a heavy and surreal haunted feeling throughout the town. As we stumble through our virtual ghost town, it's a slight gut-jab to see the world outside going on with business as usual when here, our world has been altered beyond recognition. Someone referred to Montpelier as being 'hollowed out'. And it really is.
All but a few businesses in town are destroyed. We have no post office, no pharmacies, no theater, no bookstores, no hardware stores. My bank is still closed. Gas stations are still down. Electricity is still out in places. Only a few eateries are operational that I know of. Apartments sit abandoned, bearing silent witness to the lives lived within their walls until that moment when the water rose to destructive levels and swallowed it all.
We are only now learning the sad news that some businesses that were an integral part of our community will not be coming back. When learning that our local shoe repair business would not be reopening, a friend said to her kid, "Do you know how important a cobbler is?" It speaks to how indispensable these small community-rooted businesses are to the functioning of a town, and we will not have them all back. A large thank-you card hangs on one of our most beloved businesses that won't be reopening their doors. People are signing it as they walk by, thanking them for decades of service to our community.
Storefront after storefront throughout town has been stripped down to raw bones and beams. Many have no floors or walls, providing unobstructed views into basements and neighboring stores. Literal skeletons of what used to be people's livelihoods, creative expressions, lifelong dreams, essential bricks in the foundation of our town.
In every crisis, Vermonter's rally under the banner of "VT STRONG". This rallying cry graces our license plates, t-shirts, posters, group cover pics - it's become the state motto.
It is remarkable and deeply heartwarming to see people rising together to help each other—clearing the disaster debris, providing food and shelter, and supplying water, cleaning equipment, and lost household items. Groups of volunteers have selflessly teamed up and entered people's homes throughout long days and evenings, working tirelessly to clean up foul silt and wet, molded carpets and furniture. Individuals are truly coming together, supporting one another with unwavering dedication. Within a day or so after the flood, a local organization had 1,900 volunteers signed up, even having to turn people away due to the overwhelming response. VT Strong indeed.
And I also want to acknowledge that there are a lot of traumatized people right now who have lost everything. Some people are not feeling strong or resilient. "Resilience is not an infinite well." Their entire lives are sitting waterlogged and molded out on lawns and curbs. Their homes have been declared unsafe to return to. In the midst of all the rising and resiliency, there are the quiet voices of those who cannot fill in the hollow. There are people are who not rising. I wish I could find them, talk to them and photograph them. Those are the faces I want to give an image to. I don't want to veil Montpelier's situation with forced positivity. But it is my hope that we will find a way to hold a tender and compassionate space for those who are unable to rise, and also find our way to growing back the substance needed to wrap around the bones and beams, and find our loudly beating hearts again.
But right now, we are indeed, hollowed out.
Karen Hanron is a local photographer and photoartist. See work at KarenHanron.com