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Irene’s lessons curbed more damage

Though post-Tropical Storm Irene state protocols and guidelines are helping, even with July’s record rainfall and massive flooding, more can still be done, says a leader in regional planning

BRATTLEBORO—The past week’s torrential and troubling rainfall has brought to many minds Tropical Storm Irene, which ripped through Vermont on Aug. 28, 2011.

As Irene passed through Vermont that Sunday, its wind caused damage. But it was the aftermath — 11 inches of rain that the storm quickly dumped on the state — that caused $733 million in destruction.

However, Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany says the storm also brought a few “lessons learned.”

He spoke Monday with The Commons about what those lessons include and what more we can do following the showers and thunderstorms that swept through Windham County on July 29.

That weather system dumped 2 to 5 inches of rain in the span of a few hours, ending what has been one of the rainiest Julys in the region on record, according to the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y.

The first lesson from Irene resulted in “a much cleaner line of communication now from local government to the state when something like this happens,” Campany says, noting the state was flooded with requests from towns during and post-Irene.

Streamlining the communication chain helps “so that the state isn’t getting bombarded by damage sustained and what the needs are. We play a role in getting that information up [the line of command to the state level],” he says.

“Each town is supposed to have an emergency management person, and we’re in touch with them,” Campany adds.

“We reach also out to road crews, local VTrans [Vermont Agency of Transportation] officers, and state river engineers — so we’re not duplicating the asks,” he says.

Having VTrans in the loop is helpful, as the agency typically assesses damages.

“And that’s not a small thing, because they have the technical expertise,” says Campany. “The [local] road crews know an awful lot, but sometimes the engineers at VTrans can advise them. It’s also important, as that’s the first step in figuring out whether a federal disaster declaration might be warranted.”

Another critical result of Irene is that the state instituted rivers and roads training.

“It’s a great program that virtually all road foremen and crews and most contractors take,” Campany says. “It really gets into the behaviors of rivers and streams and how that affects all kinds of transportation infrastructure.”

The state also put in new road standards, including culvert and bridge sizes, to better accommodate flooding, he adds.

“If you have an undersized culvert — and this is what we’ve seen during the month of July — they can jam up with debris and impound water behind and when that releases, it really creates a destructive force.”

Campany also cautions that privately owned culverts are often too small and prone to causing the same, and ultimately expensive, issues.

“You have these standards for public roads, but a lot of private property owners probably have undersized culverts under their driveways. It’s not cheap to replace them, but it’s a fact of life,” he says. “That’s a household-level thing you have to take into account.”

“When you have as much rain as we had, things may not behave as in normal times,” Campany continues. “Water gets collected in drainages, and it’s going to go where it needs to go and it could get delivered right to your back door.”

“I encourage everybody to make note of what they saw [during this week’s storms] and plan accordingly, because it’s apt to happen again,” he warns.

More resources available, but patience required

In New England and Vermont, says Campany, most disasters affect roadways or power, while not so many displace people or damage homes.

“And when that happens, it’s spotty, like a tree falls on a car or on a house,” he says. “Mercifully, this [series of storms] did not have the impact of Irene, but one of the lessons is simple: call Vermont 211.”

That service, operating statewide since 2005, has assisted 1,205 people in Windham County from January to June, generally providing information to Vermonters in need of help with problems ranging from shelter and transportation to health care to legal services.

Vermont 211 specifically takes on a major role in helping people in the aftermath of emergencies.

According to its website, Vermont 211 fielded “roughly 10,000 calls in a 10-day period from individuals who sustained damage” from Tropical Storm Irene. The service, operated by the United Ways of Vermont, plays a role in quelching rumors, providing information about relief services like shelter and food, and, during extended periods of recovery, providing callers long-term information and resources.

“It’s really important — because they become really busy in times like this, too — to leave a message because they will get back to you,” he says. “The bigger the event, the more patient you have to be because everybody is spread real thin.”

Campany advises patience.

“If you’ve never been through this and you’re terrified, you, of course, want an immediate response, but there’s kind of a hierarchy of needs,” he says. “You have to deal with community needs first, and then you can start to deal with individual needs.”

As another post-Irene initiative, the state instituted river corridor policies that give towns the option to adopt bylaws about them. Still, not all towns are taking advantage of that opportunity.

“Rivers and streams want to move — especially in the soils here — and are pretty erodible, so the idea is to prevent damage caused by stream bank erosion, which can be deadly because soil literally washes away from under something,” Campany says. “But a lot of towns don’t like to regulate things anyway and so it’s been a challenge for towns to adopt these bylaws.”

He notes that some towns might not even have land-use zoning, making things even more difficult.

Campany says his “professional, personal” opinion is that “river corridors should be regulated at the state level, not the town level, because it’s a life-safety policy.”

“We know what kind of damage these rivers can do,” he says. “And this event really underscores the need for flood insurance. It’s worth it, if you can afford it.”

Other safeguards against the power of water

Campany staunchly advocates not clearing one’s property all the way to an adjacent river or stream.

“Too often people clear their property to the river’s edges because they like the view,” he says.

Campany almost lost a bridge on his property in Townshend after Thursday’s rain, but it was literally saved by a tree.

“At our house, a big black willow caught a massive dead sycamore. If it hadn’t, it would have taken out our bridge. You can always maintain a pathway [to the water’s edge], but really you want as much vegetation as you possibly can to hold those banks — to save your property and to help save the property of people downstream.”

He now plans to restore trees and shrubs to create a 50-foot buffer to the water.

“There are all kinds of other habitats that can be be damaged, too,” he says. “Rocks don’t hold soil, roots hold soil. The best thing you can do is maintain an already vegetated buffer — and we’re not talking lawn; we’re talking trees, shrubs, native grasses with 10-foot-deep roots.”

“A really good example is in the middle of the West River — there are all those volunteer sycamores and they hold their ground,” he continues. “Ice goes over them, floods go over them, and they still hold the soil.”

One of Campany’s favorite quotations is from writer Wendell Barry: “Do unto those downstream as you’d have those upstream do unto you.”

“It really is true,” Campany says. “You really have to be mindful of how what you do is affecting those downstream. Stuff flows downstream and clogs culverts — and more.”

Campany doesn’t see the potential for flooding to stop anytime soon and believes events such as this one should serve as cautionary tales.

As leader since 2010 of the WRC, with 27 member towns in its jurisdiction, including all of Windham County, Campany is poised to look at the big picture of public policy and how it is implemented at the local level.

He also serves on the Vermont Climate Council, formed as a result of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020. Campany holds the seat representing municipal governments on the council, which is charged with developing policies regarding climate resilience and adaptation.

“Because of the effects of climate change, the greater intensity and frequency of rainfall and flooding events is going to continue for decades — even if we were to eliminate greenhouse gases tomorrow,” he says. “Knowledge is power and we should take advantage of this event to learn what water can do, and adapt so there’s less heartbreak.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #624 (Wednesday, August 4, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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