Five Years After Hurricane Irene, Vermont Still Striving for Resilience

After the devastating flooding that came with an otherwise unremarkable Category 1 storm, measures to prevent future flooding have taken hold.

Massive flooding from Tropical Storm Irene left Vermont reeling
Rushing floodwaters during Irene took down even ski lodges in Killington, Vermont in 2011. Credit: Getty Images

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Vermont is a shim of a state, the size and shape of a scanty slice of pie, or a narrow wedge of its finest cheddar.

With no ocean coastline, Vermont might have seemed an unlikely candidate to be devastated by a hurricane five years ago, and to most, Irene was an entirely forgettable storm. Its memory is eclipsed for many by Sandy, which followed a year later.

Irene was actually only a hurricane for a brief stretch over distant North Carolina. Its winds dwindled once it made landfall. But while winds and storm surge make hurricanes so telegenic, what made this one so destructive was rain. Irene dumped as much as 11 inches of rain on parts of Vermont, and caused $733 million in damage. In all, it checked in at $14.3 billion, the sixth-costliest hurricane in American history.

It turns out, Vermont wasn’t that unlikely a candidate for all that damage. And residents of the Green Mountain State, crisscrossed by rivers and streams, have a lot to worry about in the future.

Even inland states like Vermont are never out of reach of Atlantic  storms, and hurricanes and Nor’easters of the future will be even wetter because warmer air in the atmosphere holds more water, climate scientists say.

Vermont’s vulnerability to flooding was the harsh reality Irene drove home in 2011. More than 2,400 roads, 800 homes and businesses, 300 bridges (including historic covered bridges) and a half dozen railroad lines were destroyed or damaged, according to the National Oceanic Administration Agency (NOAA).

“The sound of heavy rain is still a little nervous-making,” said Liz Kenton, a Brattleboro, resident who survived the storm.

After Irene swept through, Vermont set about understanding the devastation and working toward resilience. The state passed legislation increasing government’s role in flood response, and launched a series of websites, including Flood Ready Vermont and Vermont Climate Assessment, to make residents aware of its programs. Some municipalities have bought out homeowners in the worst devastation zones, in order to prevent future damage. Roads and bridges have been rebuilt to withstand future floods. The state’s largest utility, Green Mountain Power, said it is working toward decentralizing its grid to make power outages easier to contain and easier to recover from.

Most importantly, said Ned Swanberg, the state’s flood hazard mapping coordinator: “The science has been integrated into policy. There’s been this alignment of incentives for municipalities to be responsible for this larger purpose. It’s in the statute now that state plans and municipal plans need to address flood resilience and river corridor protection.”

Restoring Rivers

One of the main takeaways from Irene was that development had changed the landscape around rivers. By making them straighter and easier to build around, it meant that heavy rains turned them from placid waterways into chutes of destruction.

“It’s clear to us that flooding is not just the water rising,” said Swanberg, “It’s the power of water that is causing the damage to roads and bridges and culverts.”

When the water breached river channels during Irene, it behaved like water from a firehose, not just flooding homes but sweeping them away. It created damage along corridors never identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as Special Flood Hazard Areas. In some areas of the state, such as the northeast corner known as the Northeast Kingdom, many of the FEMA maps are 30 years old and exist only on paper.

“FEMA’s stalled in Vermont,” said Swanberg. “Because we’re not on a coastline or behind a levee, we’re not a priority update area.”

“We get floods all the time,” said Kenneth Jones, an Economic Research Analyst with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. In fact, Vermont has experienced flooding in every year since 2007, which is still not reflected in many of FEMA’s maps.

Instead of waiting for FEMA to update its maps, Vermont made its own that focused on its specific kind of river flooding. They mapped the river and tributary systems statewide and identified the channel or the space that rivers will need, helping the state’s municipalities manage development near those rivers to give them the wiggle room they need.

Paying Now, Instead of Later

Vermont has provided incentives to municipalities to do this work, in part, through funding  by Vermont’s Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund (ERAF). It matches federal assistance after a disaster is declared. While the federal government covers 75 percent of eligible public costs, Vermont contributes an additional 7.5 percent. But in communities that have undertaken steps to reduce flood damage that number jumps to 12.5 percent. The majority of municipalities now qualify for this supplement.

Northfield, a town in the central Green Mountains with a population of about 6,200, sustained more than $2 million in property damage during Irene and has taken advantage of the extra funding. It bought out the owners of the homes that were hardest hit and within the River Corridor. It is in the process of building a park that can withstand flooding.

Officials say 91 percent of roads and bridges across the state meet current standards, and 80 percent of communities have an updated local emergency operations plan.

But they also say that only a quarter of the state’s municipalities have adopted updated river corridor and or floodplain standards, and a third of municipalities haven’t yet adopted a local hazard mitigation plan. Businesses are still shuttering, finding that after five years after Irene they weren’t able to fully recover.

“We have other stories of flooding events,” said Jones. “It’s it is the cumulative effect, every time there’s a short term shock, you can only do that [rebuild] so many times. There’s only so many times a business can take that.”

A Wetter Future Looms

“Irene should be a reminder that a lot of mortality from tropical storms comes from rain,” said Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Emanuel said Irene was a 1-in-1,000-year event based on the standards of the 20th century. “At the end of this century, if we do nothing to curb emissions, that 1,000-year event in rain would be a 100-year event,” he said.

But even before Irene, Vermont was dealing with more floods. Between 1895 and 2011, the Northeast’s annual precipitation increased by more than 10 percent, greater than any other region in the U.S.

Those forecasts have the attention of Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility, which supplies power to three-quarters of the state.  Irene caused more than 117,000 power outages, affecting a third of the state.

“The model we have now where you pipe power from far away into people’s homes is inefficient, with the increased concerns about the environment and the reality on the ground of increased storms from climate change,” said Kristin Carlson, chief of communications at Green Mountain Power. “It’s a system that isn’t going to serve customers well from a reliability and resiliency perspective. We want to transform away from that.”

The utility, for example, is partnering with Tesla to bring the Powerwall, a whole house battery that can power the house during an outage, to its customers.

In Rutland, a city that was walloped by Irene and continues to deal with flooding, Green Mountain power erected a solar project paired with battery storage. “When the grid goes down,” said Carlson, “solar project can still power the high school as an emergency shelter.” When it was built in 2014, it was the first exclusively solar-powered microgrid in the country.

At the same time, in recognition of the fact that climate change isn’t making their job any easier, Green Mountain Power has promoted conserving energy. In a state where many homes are still mainly heated by oil—which Green Mountain Power doesn’t sell—the company is encouraging homeowners to heat their homes with air-source heat pumps, which use electricity.

Customers who sign up can pay for the retrofit in installments based on cost savings over time. Green Mountain Power is encouraging customers to switch from an energy source it doesn’t sell to one it does, which serves its interests, the company is also encouraging customers to invest in solar panels.

Pulling Together

What also was revealed during Irene was Vermonters’ determination to work together in the worst of circumstances.

The storm left at least 13 towns as veritable islands, cut off by rising waters or collapsed bridges. When one of those blocked crossings left residents of Royalton isolated, local fire and rescue workers teamed up to clear a path through a field of sunflowers, uproot a tree and cut through a fence. That allowed residents to drive onto Interstate 89 on what some locals dubbed ‘the hillbilly highway,’ and others jokingly called Exit 2 ½.

Peggy Shinn, a Vermonter who weathered the storm, chronicled one story in her book, “Deluge.”  In it, Mark Bourassa, who worked for a local excavation crew, drove 37 miles on ravaged roads and walked an additional six to reach his job after the storm. As Bourassa and his boss, Craig Bosher, manned a bulldozer and an excavator to begin reconstructing U.S. Route 4, a crucial east-west highway in the southern part of the state, Mosher called the state transportation agency to tell them of their plans.

When he gave his name to the person who answered, Shinn writes, Mosher was told he was not an approved state contractor.

“I’m not asking for permission,” Mosher said. “I’m telling you what I’m doing.”

Then he hung up and began rebuilding Route 4.