Acting on the Lessons of Irene

Tropical Storm Irene was a momentous event. The power of water in our mountainous state was a wake-up call that brought out the resourceful power of Vermonters to unite, be smart and prepare for our new reality of more frequent and intense storms. State government and communities have been working to be better prepared and more resilient. However, we still have more to achieve to act on the lessons of Irene.

Watershed communities must protect the river corridor and develop a strong sense of upstream/downstream relationships.

Vermont has unique challenges because of our topography and development choices. We live in the valleys along rivers and in rural, forested areas along dirt roads. This settlement pattern means it is critical to consider our upstream and downstream neighbors when we make decisions about how to interact with our rivers and other waterways.

Vermont’s vulnerability with regard to flooding is erosion, rather than inundation. Rivers are out of equilibrium and have been eroded, causing the water to move faster and more powerfully. Rivers need space to meander so they can stay in balance. Their natural “S” shape helps reduce the river’s power during a flood. Upland forests absorb precipitation and delay streams and rivers from becoming overwhelmed by runoff in a storm. Floodplains allow natural overflow during times of heavy rain or snowmelt.

Researchers estimate the Town of Middlebury avoided $1.8 million in damages during Irene because of the protective power of upstream wetlands and farms. Several towns have adopted or are preparing river corridor protection standards to restrict development along rivers and give rivers room to move, thereby helping help the entire watershed. However, we still have more to do, as only one out of four towns have limited floodplain development in this way.

Low Income Vermonters are the most at risk.

Fifteen percent of the homes damaged or destroyed in Tropical Storm Irene were mobile homes or manufactured homes, even though they make up only 7% of Vermont’s housing stock. Many mobile home parks are located in areas that are vulnerable to flooding and erosion because that land is typically less expensive. Almost half the mobile home stock in Vermont was built before 1990. Homes of this age are showing significant signs of deterioration. UVM and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity have been developing approaches to improving the resilience of Vermont’s mobile home parks.

We must leverage our strong social capital to prepare for the future.

The idea of “Vermont Strong” emerged from Vermonters working shoulder to shoulder with each other to assess the damage, care for each other and help individuals, business and communities recover after the storm. We need to apply this same resourcefulness and community awareness to becoming better prepared and resilient, not just responding to disasters after they occur.

Over the last 30 years both annual precipitation and the frequency of one-day heavy precipitation events have increased. As the climate continues to change, these trends will continue and worsen. Vermont communities recognize that to be resilient they need to be aware of these risks and base their planning on future trends, rather than on how things have been in the past. Towns are beginning to use new tools and explore ways to improve communications among planning and conservation commissions, disaster preparedness experts, first responders and elected leaders so they can both prepare for what’s ahead and respond appropriately when the power of water surges again.

Gaye Symington, August 31, 2016