BRATTLEBORO — Yup, a hard rain fell. And some more hard rain's a-gonna fall. And then some more.
A year after Tropical Storm (née Hurricane) Irene hit Vermont and changed just about everything, a few people were still arguing whether it was a once-in-a-10-year storm or a once-in-100-year storm.
But most acknowledged this uneasy truth: we've entered the Era of Climate Change, and Irene might only be the beginning.
A report by the Environment America Research and Policy Center called “Global Warming and the Increase in Extreme Precipitation from 1948 to 2011” concluded, “Extreme downpours are now happening 30 percent more often nationwide than in 1948. In other words, large rain or snowstorms that happened once every 12 months, on average, in the middle of the 20th century now happen every nine months. Moreover, the largest annual storms now produce 10 percent more precipitation, on average.”
New England had seen the biggest change. According to the report, in New England “intense rainstorms and snowstorms [are] now happening 85 percent more often than in 1948.”
And Vermont? It saw “the intensity of the largest storm each year increase by 20 percent or more.”
Even before Irene hit Vermont on Aug. 28, 2011, the ground was already saturated by abnormal amounts of spring rainfall. Lake Champlain had already overflowed its banks.
But Irene was the kicker.
“Irene was a reminder we can't escape inside the borders of our state - that an out-of-control world would mean an unlivable Vermont,” environmentalist and Middlebury College Distinguished Scholar Bill McKibben said.
“We've got to build local resilience as fast as we can, but at the same time participate in - lead, really - the global movement to bring climate change under control,” he added. “Because the best organic farm in the world isn't going to grow anything if it washes away down the swollen river.”
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It's human nature, after a catastrophe, to try and return life to normal as quickly as possible.
Until Irene, many of us in environmentally-conscious Vermont were suspicious of people in California who built expensive houses on stilts overlooking the ocean, saw their homes wash away downhill, and then rebuilt them in exactly the same places. What were they thinking?
But now, as we rebuild pieces of Vermont more or less in the same places they were before the storm, we can't be so complacent.
“We go back and put buildings into the floodplain or repair buildings in the floodplain, then we can't expect anything more than to see the same thing happen when we have these kinds of flows,” said David Deen, who in 2011 was Connecticut River Steward and a state representative.
“The floodplains allow rivers to spread out. And rivers design themselves to access those floodplains as a matter of course. It's just how rivers are. And we should not be surprised if it happens again.”
Relocating a house is hard enough. Relocating a whole town sounds impossible. But it has been done. Because of the difficulty of winter travel, by 1860 the town of Newfane had been moved from its old location on Newfane Hill down to where it is now.
Oddly, in 1997, well before Irene, the town of Wilmington developed a plan to relocate the entire downtown to nearby Castle Hill.
The concern then was the continued deterioration of downtown due to traffic stress. The enormous effort to pull off something like this - cost, infrastructure, land ownership, cooperation among townspeople, etc. - made the plan a no-go from the start.
Then came Irene. The Deerfield River rose from its banks and downtown Wilmington was almost completely destroyed. In retrospect, that old relocation proposal looks prescient.
Yet Wilmington is rebuilding itself in exactly the same place.
“I would bet that every day, somewhere in Vermont, a landowner, a town official, or a state agency is weighing alternatives to remove or lessen an encroachment on a river corridor or floodplain,” said Mike Kline, who in 2011 worked as the rivers program manager for the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. He is now a private consultant on such matters.
“These are very hard choices that often mean taking a short term loss with the hope of a long-term gain,” Kline said. “I think Irene has shown us that the risks are real and that giving the river room when we can and where we can makes good dollars and cents.”
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Irene raised many hard questions. What should we make of what we've been through?
In Brattleboro on Aug. 28, 2011, the peaceful, meandering Whetstone Brook turned into a raging torrent that flooded the lower end of downtown. One of the people who documented the disaster for the rest of the nation was Frederic Noyes, who at the time worked for Brattleboro Community Television.
“First we lost our electricity for a couple of hours,” Noyes said. “When it came back on, I tried to see what was going on. So I went on Facebook and there were a few flooding photos of Flat Street. Soon Flat Street became a Mecca for people who couldn't stand to stay at home.
“I put my family and the video camera in the car - we hoped if we got into trouble the car would float - and went down the street to see the Whetstone Brook. The water was within a foot or two of being at the bridge.
“Further downtown, we could see the lumberyard was full of water. We could see boxes from Sam's warehouse floating all over the street. We could see alarming things from people's yards floating: the smaller propane tanks, lumber, parts of garbage cans, children's toys - anything that was left in people's yards - all heading towards the Connecticut River. I never saw the Whetstone moving with that velocity and ferociousness, sweeping everything away.”
Noyes and other BCTV stalwarts filmed it all.
“Roland Boyden did his news broadcast standing knee deep in floodwaters on Flat Street,” Noyes said. “Joe Bushey was in the right place at the right time to get the footage of the very large 500-gallon propane tank going over the Whetstone.”
The BCTV footage was soon on YouTube, where it was picked up by CNBC, CBS, and the Weather Channel and, closer to home, on WCAX in Burlington. Soon, the whole country was seeing headlines like “Vermont in Crisis Due to Epic Flooding”
The Deerfield River. The West River. The Whetstone Brook. The Rock River. The Saxtons River. The White River. The Winooski River. The Neshobe River. The Mad River. The Ottauquechee River. The Tweed River. The Lamoille River. The list went on and on.
The damage was quick, fierce, and startling.
All over the state, homes were swept away. Whole villages like historic Wilmington were destroyed. Roads and bridges - including several treasured and historic covered bridges - were washed away.
The government offices in Waterbury - including, ironically, the main offices for both Vermont Emergency Management and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) - were flooded, and 1,500 state workers were displaced. Approximately 225 municipalities were affected, and about 13 of them had no roads leading into or out of town. About 500 miles of road and 200 bridges were damaged.
About 73,000 people lost power, but because utilities had brought in repair trucks from their out-of-state counterparts before the storm hit, 55 percent of the power was restored within 24 hours.
Wells were submerged and boil-water advisories were in effect in many places around the state. Seventeen municipal wastewater treatment plants reported damage.
Seven people lost their lives in Vermont. That's a remarkably small number for such a major disaster, but it's still seven people too many.
By January 2012, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin was saying the latest estimate for damages to private homes and businesses was $550 million, on top of an estimated $240 million in state roads and infrastructure costs and around $140 million for local town roads and bridges. (A 2016 state Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy cited the economic damage of Irene in Vermont as $1 billion.)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimated that at least 3,535 homes had suffered some damage.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, 476 of Vermont's precious farms were impacted.
That's approximately 7,200 acres of hay, 6,000 acres of corn, 1,750 acres of pasture, 1,400 acres of sugarbush, 600 acres of vegetables and fruits, 225 acres of soybeans, and 9,100 acres of farmland.
The human damage was even more overwhelming.
“Some people have been able to move on, while other people are still dealing with ramifications from the flooding,” said Robin White, a team member of Starting Over Strong (SOS), a nonprofit that is helping with the mental health fallout from the flooding.
“Some people don't have their businesses up and running yet,” said White, who serves on the team helping Windham and Windsor counties. “A lot of people who have lost their homes are still in some kind of alternative housing. Many people are still dealing with the loss.
“There's a lot of sadness in losing your home and memorabilia. What about children who lost all their toys? People can give them new toys, but it's not their toys. I work with one family who has a girl about 6 or 7 years old. She's still very shy, very attached to her mother, and very anxious every time it rains.
“I always compare it to a grief process. It came suddenly and unexpectedly. It takes months to even get out of shock.
“People say, 'It's taking every spare moment to put my life back to normal, and it will be a new normal, because my life won't ever be the same.'”
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When talking about Vermonters' immediate reaction to the storm a year later, Sue Minter, then the state's Irene Recovery Officer, used the word “heroic.”
“I've heard it all over the state,” Minter said. “Heroism. People sacrificing on behalf of their fellow Vermonters. Housing them, feeding them, donating clothes. The resort communities stepped up. Many of them housed flood survivors who were temporarily displaced. They had their staff clean up the village of Wilmington.
“I am really compelled to give a shout out for our state employees. It was amazing to me the sacrifice, dedication, the work ethic, the 'never say die' mentality. It was because of that we were able to get the roads ready by winter when no one thought it was possible.
“It was 24/7, all hands on deck. It was the way in which partners collaborated. The contracting community worked with the Agency of Transportation people. Sometimes, historically, these are contentious relationships.
“But in this they were united. In so many ways, Vermonters have stepped up and it continues on.”
Money was raised in a remarkable variety of ways.
Vermont musicians like Grace Potter and the Nocturnals gave a concert, while Phish reunited to do a concert that raised $1.2 million.
The Northeast Organic Farmers Association Vermont held an online auction. Vermont Public Radio spent a day raising money for storm victims; more than 4,600 donors contributed over $628,000 for the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund.
Ric Cabot of Darn Tough Vermont donated thousands of pairs of Darn Tough socks - the same kinds of socks that the Armed Forces buys to use in Afghanistan - to the Vermont Foodbank for distribution to hard-hit communities.
The state put out an “I am Vermont Strong” license plate and sold thousands to raise money.
All was not entirely rosy. Some Vermonters took advantage of the state's laissez-faire emergency reconstruction attitude to increase their property at the expense of a river. Some dug for gravel and deepened channels that will just make the water come hurtling past faster next time.
“Damage suffered from Tropical Storm Irene required immediate and in some cases extensive stream channel alteration to protect life and property and rebuild critical transportation infrastructure,” wrote Fisheries Biologist Rich Kirn in a report published in 2012 by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
“However, a significant amount of in-stream activity was also conducted without proper consultation and oversight and for reasons beyond necessary flood recovery,” the report continued. “These activities continued for several months after the flood event and covered a wide area of the central and southern portion of the state.”
Some roads and bridges were repaired poorly because of haste and/or a shortage of materials. In 2012, officials from the state's transportation and natural resource agencies met to announce that 323 sites around the state would either need to be reworked or repaired.
“None of this is a surprise,” Justin Johnson, the Agency of Natural Resources' deputy commissioner, told reporters. “It was fully expected that we'd be back a second time.”
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Where were we a year after Irene hit the state?
How much FEMA would agree to give the state was still up in the air; a year in, Vermont had received more than $100 million in public assistance. Ultimately, the federal agency offered a 90-percent match for projects that qualified for public assistance.
Before Irene, a remarkably low number of Vermont homeowners had flood insurance - it's usually not included in regular homeowners' insurance. So in terms of homes, the Holy Grail of emergency relief again was FEMA.
And that appears to have failed Vermonters as well.
When FEMA first came into Vermont, figures like $30,000 were tossed around for a home that was damaged or destroyed. It was certainly not enough, but it was a start.
“When we first met with folks from FEMA, immediately after the flood, it seemed to be clear that if homeowners had at least $35,000 of uninsured damage, they would get a $30,000 grant from FEMA,” said Paul Bruhn (1947–2019), then the executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
“If they had a $100,000 home, they would still get $30,000,” he said. “It turns out that the average grant is $6,000. That's the average. According to an April state report, the average FEMA assistance provided was $5,500.”
The Trust was able to dip into its own funding, Bruhn said.
“We could re-grant to a variety of important community gathering places like bookstores, cafes, restaurants, a bowling alley in Wilmington, as well as nonprofit organizations and municipalities,” he said.
“As part of our due diligence, we asked the applicants to let us know the specifics of their financial situation. And it's amazing that a lot of these businesses and community organizations had to go out and borrow $100,000 or $200,000 or $300,000 to rebuild. They got low-interest loans, which was great. But it's still new debt.
“So in the short run, rebuilding was part of the challenge. But the next part will be paying off that debt. When the flood hit us, a friend of mine from England called me and said, 'We got hammered with a flood 10 years ago in my community and it has taken us 10 years to recover.'
“On the positive note, there is something indomitable about the Vermont spirit,” Bruhn said. “Thank goodness we have it.”
Farms recovered fairly rapidly.
“Most of the farms that were damaged have pulled through,” said Vern Grubinger, a University of Vermont professor and an extension service agricultural expert. “Some are still dealing with economic and physical loss. Especially small horticulture. They had lots of community support, but dairy farms had more financial support.”
Philanthropic initiatives raised $3 million for agriculture, Grubinger said. People donated time and material. Low interest rates were made available.
“In general, people regrouped,” Grubinger said. “The lessons learned? It's important to think about resilience.”
More growers began signing up for crop insurance, for example. The Crop Insurance Program worked for those who had it, but it wasn't designed for diversity.
In the wake of Irene, the Farm Service Agency reached out to apple and vegetable growers and increased its constituency. But some things are complicated. For example, if you base your insurance on the market price of your crops, how do you insure a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm that doesn't really sell a product but a piece of its own seasonal success?
“There's still some work to be done,” Grubinger said.
“That's a silver lining - lot of people have worked on thinking about how to make the programs better if we have an event like this in the future.
“Take the dairy side. There were a lot of microtoxins - fungi - that weren't well understood. Now the state has done a lot of work with farmers on testing feed. There's been a bunch of technical knowledge gained.
“Not that anyone wanted to know that stuff, but it's important to be prepared,” Grubinger said.
As it turned out, Irene's timing was good for fish.
“All the spring spawners, bass and trout, had finished,” said Connecticut River Steward Deen. “All the young had been born and they just had to take their chances in the high floods. And the fall spawners - brook trout and brown trout- had not started yet. They start spawning in October.
“There were losses in terms of the number of fish killed, but their bodies were swept down to Long Island Sound and we don't have an accurate count.
“Without the extra disturbance of big yellow machines in the rivers across the months of September and October, channelizing the rivers, normal populations would recover in two to three years,” Deen said.
But given the invasive river work, “it could take up to a decade,” he said. “That means 78 miles of river will take a decade or longer to recover. It depends on how the river was treated after the storm.”
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That's it in a nutshell: it all depends on how we treat our rivers. And that raises questions of cost, of infrastructure, of cooperation, of human nature, of psychology - and of understanding.
After Irene, Gov. Shumlin said, “Together we will rebuild our state better than the way Irene found us. And we will be stronger for it.”
But if we don't confront the issue of how we treat our rivers, we will find that in our very human need to restore things to the way they were, we may be making a huge error.
“In too many cases, folks have an emotional attachment to their home or business and a financial attachment if they were to not rebuild, forfeit their lost investment, and default on their existing mortgage,” said Todd Menees, now the river management engineer for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
“The post-flood fix seems to be a good tradeoff using insurance settlements to rebuild, but they do not see the societal costs of their next insurance settlement or of a future owner rebuilding again after the next flood, or God forbid someone dies in the next flood from the rebuilt project.
“How do we rebuild better to withstand the next flood? In Vermont, collectively we must change our mindset as a society. We can't change the forces of nature, but we can change how we react to Mother Nature's fury by giving rivers the room to move in the floodplain.
“Or we will put ourselves in harm's way again.”