National Guard members filled sand bags and a crane wielding a steel beam pounded away Tuesday at the ice-jammed Winooski River as the capital city maintained a tense watch on the river, fearing a repeat of a 1992 flood that devastated downtown.
Residents and business owners here have been preparing for a flood for weeks — emptying basements, raising store inventory up onto shelves and fortifying buildings with sand bags.
"Even though rain is expected (Wednesday), the National Weather Service tells us that that amount of precipitation will be absorbed by the existing snow pack," said Peter Coffey, deputy director of Vermont Emergency Management. More rain could be a problem, though.
A "break-up" ice jam had triggered the March 11, 1992, flood. This year, a mile-long "freeze-up" ice jam has formed as a result of warm weather early in the winter followed by frigid temperatures.
Officials don't know if, when or where the river will overflow, but they say it's likely to be preceded by temperatures in the 50s followed by rain. The National Weather Service forecast called for a high near 49 degrees and up to a quarter-inch of rain Wednesday.
So far, said City Manager William Fraser, "it's melting slowly and gradually."
At the city's public works yard, more than 20 camouflage-clad soldiers loaded 40-pound bags of sand that will be moved to City Hall and state buildings.
"These are folks from all over the state, and they're all excited to be here to help Montpelier," said Col. Chris Bishop, who was overseeing the work. "We had tons of volunteers from all over the state, Guard members who wanted to help."
Residents like Jim Roos are ready and waiting for a thaw.
Roos, 76, suggested that police cruisers roam the city with their sirens on in the event of a flood. It would be easier to hear than the siren, which the city also tested Tuesday.
"I won't wake up unless I'm sure that something's going on," Roos said.