GUILFORD—In September, the Green River Watershed Alliance, with help from the Windham Regional Commission and the Windham County Conservation District, hosted “A Dark & Stormy Night...,” a community storytelling forum about flood hazards and community preparedness in Guilford.
According to a news release, the forum came in light of infrastructure damage and the neighborhood response of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and other subsequent flooding events in southern Vermont.
During the evening, members of the community gathered in the cafeteria of the Guilford Central School, around a large and interactive map of their town, created with colored masking tape outlining the roads and rivers right on the cafeteria floor. People stood up, and “walked” to areas in their town where they saw flood damage, and talked about their experiences in Irene.
In Guilford, there is a current proposal before the community to approve a proposed Flood and Fluvial Erosion Hazard Ordinance, which would limit certain kinds of development in the immediate floodplains and river corridors. If approved, this protective ordinance would allow the Town of Guilford to receive higher Emergency Relief Assistance Fund reimbursement rates for declared disasters, such as during Irene.
The event highlighted and elevated the flood resiliency efforts in Guilford that arose during Irene, and made connections between neighbors to place the ordinance within the context of flood realities in their town. This is especially relevant, according to the news release, “as the threat of climate change, its impact on local communities, and the increasingly intense weather patterns have entered the current news cycle.”
More than 50 people attended the event. People celebrated their First Responders, talked about “how they never thought about their watersheds before...,” and underscored how important local, neighbor-to-neighbor connections are in a national political climate that is critically divided.
Emily Davis, Windham Regional Commission Planner, facilitated and organized the storytelling event.
“Our only mission here tonight,” Davis said, “is to talk about floods, bring us all together around our stories about floods, and see what all that means for the ordinance and how the pieces fit together.”
She added, “In a pretty divided political scene, us here in Vermont are blessed to have really tight-knit communities. We can see resilience on a really personal level within our communities and municipalities. This storytelling event is a way to highlight, elevate, and support that community resilience, and that’s why we wanted to gather you all here today.”
As the storytelling event progressed, attending community members were asked to move, on the cafeteria floor, to where they were during Irene, where they live, or where they work. People followed the familiar roads to place themselves on this interactive floor map, and noticed where they were in relationship to their neighbors, where people were in their watersheds, and even which watersheds they live in.
Even more powerfully, attendees were able to identify their neighbors who were in the uplands of a watershed, and those that live right in the valley floors and along the streams and rivers.
One Guilford resident offered to emphasize the impact on watershed boundaries in town planning. In Irene, many neighbors were left stranded and unaware of what was happening elsewhere in town, since the rising waters eroded many roads.
He noticed that, “Guilford has three different watersheds, and that means that there’s hills or mountains or something else between us. And so, what that means is while we know that there is something going on in the Green River watershed, we’re not certain of what’s going on in Fall River or Broad Brook.”
Another community member told stories of the day Irene hit, and read from the Guilford Emergency Operations Center log during the storm. He remembered that, “One noteworthy fact not in this log is the heroic swift-water rescue performed by Guilford Fire Department. This was overheard on the fire frequency but not recorded on our flip charts.
“And you know, we talk about how you learn things as a result of all this. Of course, they had no rescue equipment. They had no rope, or life preserver, or what you would need to throw out to someone. And now they have that kind of equipment carried in their vehicle. And so one of the things we learned is that when we know that something is going to happen, we’ll meet ahead of time, and plan ahead.”
“Tonight was the first time that I really thought about our different watersheds that both threaten and connect us,” another Guilford resident said. “And I heard a lot about the individual heroism and the sort of ordinary, ‘awe-shucks,’ ‘let’s-not-talk-about-it’ heroism. [While] I have great trepidation that we’ll have lots of other flood events that come up, I have a tremendous amount of confidence that the people that we have here in this room, and their children, will continue to come together for Guilford.”
Recalling the community response to flood disasters, she finished, “You know, we don’t agree on everything here, but what we do all feel is that we’ll do it again for each other, in the way we feel [is] best.”