Vermont storm exposes strengths and limitations of new flood defenses

Vermont, a state known for its peaceful green hills, grazing cows and elegant covered bridges, is a place where highways are threatened by slush, rivers choked with debris and dark, propane-laced floodwater fills city streets.

But when Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in 2011, images of that kind of devastation faded into memory, and a warming climate led to a sharp reassessment of how to protect the state from superstorms.

A powerful storm hit Vermont again this week, causing severe flooding, damaging thousands of homes and businesses and exposing the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures taken since Irene. At the same time, officials and experts say the storm has demonstrated the need for constant adaptation as storms become more intense and less predictable.

“You hope that every event like this makes people cautious and think about the future,” said Frank Magilligan, a Dartmouth College geography professor and river scientist who studied flood hydrology and Irene’s regional effects. “It’s not a one-time thing, you can’t put your head in the sand.”

No injuries or deaths were reported, but state leaders said Wednesday the full extent of damage from the latest storm had yet to be assessed, leaving areas with lingering flooding, dozens of closed roads and some communities completely cut off. More rain is forecast in the coming days, raising concerns that some trouble spots could soon flood again.

Yet even as the emergency response continues, some leaders are calling for long-term planning to build on the lessons of the 2011 storm and address the often unpleasant possibility of catastrophic flooding more urgently.

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“I’ve seen records being broken, records that have stood for decades or a century,” Rep. Becca Palint said Wednesday at a Berlin, Vt., news conference. “We need to start to better understand what it’s going to look like 10 or 20 years from now, so we can use our mitigation dollars to help mitigate those impacts and help these systems be more resilient.”

Since the devastating storm 12 years ago that killed six people in the state and caused millions in damage, state and local leaders have proposed changes designed to make future storms less damaging.

State engineers inspected the 34 bridges destroyed by Irene and replaced them with new ones, reducing the number of large support piers in the water, which blocked debris from flowing into rivers and creating and damaging roads and bridges. State Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn said only two bridges were known to be damaged in the storm this week.

To move more people out of harm’s way, the government increased restrictions on building in flood plains and launched a buy-back program to remove 150 homes from those areas, Dr Mahilligan said. The effort reduces risk in two ways, he said: “It gets people out of harm’s way, and it opens up more places for water to go, reducing runoff.”

But many houses are near rivers. Even some homeowners who rebuilt after Irene and took the trouble to add new protections found out this week that they weren’t enough. Hard-hit Ludlow resident Bill Courson, 68, said the 2011 storm raised his mobile home 16 inches after four inches of water took on it, eroding floors and causing mold.

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Nevertheless, the house was flooded again on Monday with an inch of water, and by Wednesday the floors were already buckling. Mr. Corzon said he does not have flood insurance.

“It’s a lot, and you get tired,” said Mr. said Corson, a longtime ski instructor at nearby Okemo Mountain Resort, who moved to Vermont from Connecticut nine years ago when his wife retired. “I’m going to fix it and do everything I can. But I was 56 last time and now I’m 68 – it’s very different.

He said he and his wife might consider leaving Vermont. “Maybe we should move south,” he said.

In Johnson, 100 miles to the north, organic farmer Joey Lehouillier said he also made changes after Tropical Storm Irene — relocating some fields, storing equipment on higher ground and digging trenches to catch water.

None of this time made much of a difference, he said Wednesday as he surveyed the muddy ground and assessed the lost crops. “When it hit, it happened so fast,” she said. “Even if we had expected it, I’m not sure we could have done anything.”

There was good news for the state’s farmers: Vermont’s agricultural laboratory, destroyed by flooding in 2011 and rebuilt on higher ground, escaped this week’s storm unscathed. As a result, it remained open, allowing for soil conservation testing immediately after the flood, said Anson Debets, Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

“We learned our lesson there and protected a valuable asset,” he said.

In Waterbury, one of the cities hardest hit by Irene, signs of the latest storm were plentiful Wednesday: a saturated ball field, bushes covered in mud, and residents in waders filling with debris. But the city’s wastewater pump station — rebuilt with new flood-control technology after the disaster in 2011 — worked “flawlessly” despite the tenfold increase in water flow, said Bill Woodruff, the city’s director of public works.

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That investment, along with a new municipal building rebuilt on higher ground since 2011, has helped the town of 5,000 people continue to function.

However, in a landscape like Vermont, not every risk can be mitigated.

“You can’t change the height,” said Mr. Woodruff said. “We’re built in a river valley, and you can’t change that.”

Contributed by Richard Beaven Abby Goodnuff And Hilary Swift.

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