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Orange cones mark the location of two sinkholes, one of which almost swallowed up the town grader, on Black Mountain Road in Brattleboro on Feb. 24.

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Heavy rains damage roads, flood areas around Brattleboro

‘It’s the new normal,’ town officials say

BRATTLEBORO—How do you extract a 40,000-pound road grader from a 6-foot deep sink hole?

According to Public Works Director Steve Barrett, in the case of Black Mountain Road, the driver of the grader used the vehicle’s steel underblade to push the whole machine back to solid ground.

Last week, heavy rains damaged a portion of the road. Because the stream beds were full, DPW crew members couldn’t see the extent of the water damage until a hole 6 feet wide and 6 feet deep opened under the grader.

The crew could only see the part of the roadway that had collapsed because of the fast-moving water, Barrett said.

What crew members couldn’t see was that less than two feet of frozen ground topped the dirt road. Nor could they see that the swift water, caused by the more than 3 inches of rain that fell within 48 hours on Feb. 23 and 24, had undercut the roadway.

The portion of Black Mountain Road near the SIT World Learning campus remains closed while town staff members assess and repair the damage.

Until the water recedes, Barrett said, he won’t know if the water damage is a “$5,000 problem or a $180,000 problem.”

He estimates that the storm’s more minor damage will keep the department busy for at least two weeks. The more extensive issues, like damage to a 100-yard section of the already-weak Bonnyvale Road retaining wall, might take longer to fix.

“This is a little unusual,” said Barrett of the damage.

A huge amount of water

Barrett said the heavy rains gained strength and velocity in part because the water fell on frozen winter ground.

It was like the entire watershed was one big parking lot, unable to absorb any water, he said.

According to Barrett, the DPW gauges storms by the amount of water processed by the municipal Waste Water Treatment Plant.

On an average day, the treatment plant processes 1.3 million gallons of water, he said. A run-of-the-mill rain storm dumps approximately 3 million gallons into the wastewater system.

And last week’s storm?

Six million gallons, Barrett said.

By comparison, the Brattleboro Fire Department used an estimated 1.8 million gallons of water to extinguish the five-alarm Brooks House fire in 2011.

The new normal

Since Tropical Storm Irene that same year, Barrett has witnessed heavier storms but also water damage in different areas of town.

“It’s the new normal,” he said. “We don’t have a feel for the new normal.”

Under the “old normal,” Barrett saw flooding mostly in the spring from the melting snow and ice jams.

Now, the DPW responds to high water, it seems, any time of the year.

Before Irene, town departments could anticipate flooding or water damage. The water had a pattern, he said. Melrose Terrace would need to be evacuated. Sunset Lake Road was another usual suspect.

But Irene did two things for Brattleboro: the first a blessing, the second a curse.

First, federal disaster money helped the DPW repair trouble areas with bigger and better culverts or bridges. Barrett sees fewer problems in the repaired areas.

Unfortunately, Irene also changed the landscape, he said. Areas that never flooded now catch town staff by surprise. Downtown is one such area, Barrett said.

“It’s a different pattern that we’re seeing,” he said.

Irene isn’t the only culprit, he cautioned. More areas of town, and the watershed in general, have undergone building and paving.

Barrett, who grew up in Brattleboro, remembers when farms, not fast-food joints and shopping centers, dominated Putney Road.

Less land absorbing water means more water into streams, he said.

The frequency and intensity of storms have also increased, Barrett added.

Flood-response protocol

Snowfall kicked off the storm on Feb. 23. Rising temperatures eventually turned the snow to rain that at times turned to a downpour. Thunderstorms illuminated the sky into the overnight hours of Feb. 24.

The storm triggered the Brattleboro Fire Department’s flood-response protocol.

While most residents took advantage of the department’s talent for pumping water from flooded basements — cellars contain things like electrical panels or furnaces that can ignite a fire if damaged — the BFD also executes the town’s flood-response plan.

Fire Chief Michael Bucossi said his department briefly evacuated six homes at the Black Mountain Road mobile-home park during the storm.

Localized flooding caused him to temporarily close Interstate 91 near Exit 3 in the early hours of Feb. 24.

Bucossi said at approximately 3:30 a.m., while helping residents at the mobile-home park, he noticed traffic on the interstate backing up. Water had filled the swales near the interstate roughly a quarter of a mile from Exit 3, he said. A foot of water flowed over the highway.

Traffic was rerouted for the 20 minutes it took the water to recede, he said.

BFD monitors the town’s waterways for flooding, Bucossi explained using sensors called sight meters. One sits under the bridge leading to Melrose Terrace and triggers a flood alarm at Station 2 in West Brattleboro.

When firefighters hear the alarm, they put the flood-response plan into motion. Responses include everything from driving around inspecting flood-prone areas, to checking for debris or ice jams, to evacuating residents.

A second sight meter sits on the banks of the Connecticut River, noted Bucossi, who uses that meter mostly to gauge ice jams. The meter is high enough on land that if floodwaters reach it, it means that Brattleboro is experiencing more problems than a little flooding and road damage.

Bucossi estimates historically, 99 percent of flooding in Brattleboro happens in West Brattleboro.

The department remains in contact with the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y., Bucossi said. Sometimes, as was the case with Irene, the department takes pre-emptive action.

For example, rousing Melrose tenants from their sleep is disruptive, he said. In anticipation of Irene, the department evacuated residents the day before.

A benefit of evacuating early is that it keeps emergency response personnel out of harm’s way, he said.

A new unpredictability

Bucossi also notes another “new normal.”

Historically, he said, he could predict flooding in West Brattleboro.

When the flood sensor sounded, he could mentally gauge the Whetstone Brook’s levels — and how much time the department had before water breached the stream banks.

The first “spill” was always behind Leader Home Centers at 225 Marlboro Rd., he said.

But since Irene, “the hydraulics of that whole Whetstone Brook corridor is different,” Bucossi said.

Now, firefighters keep a closer watch on the streams in town.

Fire and water

All the stormwater has Bucossi wondering about spring brush fires.

Last year, the state and town issued a burn ban because of paper-dry conditions. Still, brush fires ignited, such as a three-alarm on Melchen Road in West Brattleboro that scorched 50 acres. An estimated 100 firefighters from three states responded.

The area hasn’t received a lot of snow this year, Bucossi said. Unless rain falls at regular intervals, the community will enter a very dry spring.

Brush fires pose a greater danger in the spring because all the debris from the autumn and winter have had months to dry out.

“So it’s good and dead,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #346 (Wednesday, March 2, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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