Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Today Is The Second Annivesary Of Vermont's Irene Disaster

Before and after Irene.
Hurricane Irene drowning a farm stand in Waitsfield,
Vermont as people try to save some of the produce.  

That's now partly a definition of Vermont today, on this second anniversary of the storm that rattled our sense of security as it flushed away parts of our historic, loved towns and villages.

Before Irene, floods happened, but we managed. After Irene, floods happen, we believe they're getting worse and we're waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or the entire shoe store to drop.

Before Irene, Vermont was full of charming villages in beautiful river valleys. After Irene, Vermont is full of charming villages in beautiful river valleys that are maybe one step away from utter destruction.

Before Irene, Vermonters trusted the culverts and bridges to hold during our summer downpours. After Irene, we peer through the rain, half expected the culverts to wash away and the bridges to collapse.

When Irene hit, we Vermonters pulled together, and did a remarkable job of helping the newly homeless, slogging out their muddy basements, finding them new places to live. When stores, devastated by the flood, finally reopened, we flocked in, throwing some of our money their way, because they needed it.

Town and state road crews did an incredibly job repairing and replacing the roads wiped out by Irene. Flood wrecked towns put on a brave and beautiful face for the annual fall foliage season that arrived bright and on schedule weeks after Irene.

A lot of vehicles in Vermont still have a front licence plate that reads "I Am Vermont Strong," a testament to our abiity to recover from such a disaster.
The Winooski River swallows trees in Winooski
Vermont amid Hurricane Irene flooding.  

With a few exceptions, Vermont has physically recovered from Irene. The landscape is still dotted with abandoned, wrecked homes, tilting over demolished foundations, or their walls are blown apart by the force of the water on August 28. 2011.

But mostly, the view in Vermont today is one of late summer bliss. Swimmers  are escaping one of the last humid spells of the summer by languishing in the shady, sandy edges of calm swimming holes along rivers that raged two years ago.

The green hills are as beautiful as always, rendered soft and tinted with blue in the muggy summer haze. A few trees with orange leaves stand out, sentinels of the oncoming autumn.

It's relaxing, that's for sure. But we're not that relaxed. The emotional toll of Irene lingers whether we're conscious of it or not.

For many of us, when a summer downpour arrives,  the thought crosses our minds: Will this be another disaster? Sometimes, the fleeting thought is well founded. Repeatedly, in May, June and July, vicious thunderstorms and blinding downpours blasted Vermont.

The now familiar sight of roads washing away, basements quickly submerging and torrents sweeping down hills all became reality again early this summer, further shaking our sense of security already undermined by the tsunami that was Irene.

Ask anybody and they say the weather has changed in Vermont. For centuries, we lived with the cliche, "If you don't like the weather in Vermont, wait a minute, it will change." It's always been unpredictable here.
In one of the most photographed, most iconic
images of Hurricane Irene in Vermont, this
old house in Pittsfield lies in ruins. 

But the unpredictability once had some sort of rhythm, which is gone now. The temperature spikes into the 80s in March, only to slump to freezing in June. The thunderstorms seem more menacing, more powerful. Is that our imagination, or are they really worse?

It rains for days on end, then it's dry for weeks and the forests catch fire. Then the humidity becomes so maddening you want to flee to comparatively Arctic Houston.  The winter snowstorms have become newly epic, then the piles of white wilt in a springlike thaw a few days later.

The state's politicians and land use regulators, from Gov. Peter Shumlin on down, say we have to keep rebuilding smarter after Irene. It makes sense. The goal is to build stronger bridges, wider, taller culverts. Convince people to abandon their riverbank lives and literally head for the hills.

We try planting different crops, ones that grow in new, warmer planting zones. Vegetable farmers abandon the rich soil of the flood plains, because the spring floods that once brought nutrients to the soil before the season's planting now come all summer, drowning the tomatoes, eggplant and cucumber the farmers want us to munch on.

Vermont is adapting to what is widely believed to be a new, warmer, weirder climate. That's happening all over the world. The job is necessary and unsettling. Especially since we don't know if our adapting is good enough.

In fact, it's sometimes not. When the floods came back to Vermont this summer, some of the Irene repairs held. But water cascaded through areas that even Irene spared. It's a constant battle to rethink our adaptation.

I have no sure idea if Irene was related to global warming. But the storm came in the kind of warmer, wetter summer they say is going to be routine here.

Whether or not Irene had anything to do with a new climate dawning on Vermont and the rest of the world, it was our signal. The familiar, usually friendly enough climate that we'd gotten used to for generations is gone.

Mother Nature has turned abusive, and there's no sign she's going to get any nicer anytime soon.

 remarkably kept the culverts pretty much unclogged, the roads patched, the

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