On July 10, 2024
Local News

A Ludlow couple’s flood story became national news,a year later, it has a happy ending

By Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

When 30-somethings Bex Prasse and Craig Kovalsky decided to swap adventurous careers on the sea for a more grounded life, childhood memories of snowboarding lured them to the landlocked state of Vermont.

“We looked all over trying to find a place,” Kovalsky recently recalled, “and then we saw this building that was in terrible shape — and perfect.”

Buying a Main Street fixer-upper in this ski town for a home and business, they appreciated its proximity to Okemo Mountain and, closer still, the Black River that evoked their nautical past.

“That’s what drew us,” Prasse said. “Having that flowing water was the ultimate dream.”

Until it was a nightmare. 

Courtesy Bex Prasse and Craig Kovalsky
– Floodwaters on July 10, 2023 surround the Blue Duck Deli on Ludlow’s Main Street.

A year after setting roots in 2022, the couple was about to open the Blue Duck Deli when record rainfall last July 10 momentarily turned Ludlow into the statewide storm’s epicenter. As of that noontime, meteorologists said the town had received the most precipitation in Vermont, trapping residents on a seeming island after floodwaters closed the main Route 103 artery in and out.

Prasse and Kovalsky were surveying their ravaged property when a New York Times reporter stopped by. Asked what happened, the duo recounted how they had sailed the globe over the past decade — he as a superyacht chef and she as a captain and scuba instructor — only to get wet after moving some 100 miles away from the ocean.

Within days, the two saw a Times article portray them as the face of both Vermont flooding and “newcomers to the rural state, part of a pandemic-driven influx of younger transplants that has thrilled planners after decades of concern about an aging, stagnant population.”

“We have poured our hearts and life’s savings (plus some) into this establishment,” the couple went on to write on an online fundraising page. “We need some help.”

A year later, Prasse and Kovalsky are set to replace a weathered “coming soon” sign by the end of July with another placard that once seemed unsalvageable: Open for business.

‘It took us a while to figure out’

Prasse rewinds to July 10, 2023, when she woke at 3 in the morning to hear pelting rain. Seeing the river rising, she and her partner soon discovered it pouring into the basement.

“We’re taking on water,” Kovalsky thought as if back on a boat.

Switching into “emergency mode,” the couple shut off the power and propane.

“We knew what to do instinctively,” Kovalsky said. “Something about training for disaster at sea prepared us for this.”

By Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
The restored Blue Duck Deli is set to open on Ludlow’s Main Street by the end of July.

Fleeing across the street, the two watched as stormwater circled the building. When the river finally receded that night, alarm strobe lights revealed the first-floor storefront was miraculously dry.

“I remember being on my hands and knees being so thankful,” Prasse said.

Then the couple discovered the basement full of water and an attached barn pushed off its foundation, threatening to pull down the main building.

“What do we do?” whispered the question that tossed and turned in their sleep-deprived heads.

The next day, a friend arrived with a front-end loader to plow the sand-filled parking lot. That cleared a path so the couple could reinforce the barn until it could be dismantled.

“For such a big barn,” Kovalsky said, “it came down and was cleaned up pretty fast.”

That’s when everything fell into slow motion. Take the old foundation that needed digging out. Unable to hire a professional excavator, the couple shoveled by hand for nearly a month.

The two can go on for hours with similar stories about every subsequent slog of a repair, from wall studs to Sheetrock, as well as every snag with bureaucratic red tape.

“The rebuild took so long because we ended up doing it all,” Kovalsky said. “It was a massive undertaking.”

“As inexperienced contractors, it took us a while to figure out the right way to do everything,” Prasse added. “But we already had all our eggs in this basket. We couldn’t walk away.”

‘A lot of déjà vu these days’

Prasse and Kovalsky aren’t alone in their intention to reopen. Although neither state nor federal officials can say how many Vermont small business owners have tried to bail out their operations, they can confirm entrepreneurs are facing challenges statewide.

The U.S. Small Business Administration received 1,178 applications for low-interest disaster loans. But the government has approved only about half of those, in part because business owners hurt by the Covid-19 pandemic and inflation can’t guarantee they’ll be able to meet the strict repayment schedule.

“The formula for loans is a very high bar,” Douglas Farnham, the state’s chief recovery officer, told VTDigger. “That’s really difficult, especially for a young business.”

Prasse and Kovalsky, having spent all their money establishing their deli before the flood, have focused their efforts on seeking and receiving aid from their insurer, family and friends, a disaster relief grant from DoorDash and their online fundraising page.

“We wouldn’t be here without the generosity of others,” Prasse said.

“There is a lot of déjà vu these days,” Kovalsky added as a second try at opening approaches this July. “It’s very exciting, but at the same time …”

“You never know what the weather is going to throw at you,” Prasse said.

The storm clouds left a few silver linings. The loss of the barn, for example, has led to a gain in space for a dishwashing pit. 

The couple also has discovered the kindness of strangers who have become friends.

“Even if they could have cut their losses and moved on,” the Times reported, “the care the town had shown them since the flood had cemented their commitment to stay.”

It began the moment the flood washed away some livelihoods, only to spare others.

“Do not feel guilty,” Prasse recalled saying when neighbors practically apologized for not sustaining damage. “Those businesses are the ones keeping us all inspired, keeping us all going so that we can eventually catch up and join them.”

That’s why the couple is now ordering foodstuffs from a host of local farms and producers.

Said Prasse: “You keep the community strong.”

And Kovalsky: “So we all rise up together.”

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