Sunday, August 28, 2016

Five Years Ago Today, Irene Caused Epic Vermont Disaster

People try to save produce from a Waitsfield, Vermont
farm stand during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. 
Five years ago today,  Hurricane Irene, weakening to a tropical storm, unleashed almost unprecedented torrents of rain on upstate New York and Vermont, leading to one of the worst weather disasters in the region's history.

The storm killed six Vermonters, left 531 miles of state roadways impassable and closed no fewer than 34 state highway bridges.

The Winooski River blasted through the Vermont State Office complex in Waterbury, where much of the state's government functions happen.

There's a good series of articles and photos on the Vermont Disaster Recovery site you should take a look at.

While there are still signs of damage, it's hard to see vestiges of the destruction now that five years have gone by.  Homes have been repaired, or if they were destroyed, torn down.

Some places near rivers will never hold homes or businesses again: They've been turned into parkland. Why rebuild in a place that might flood again?

 Certain repairs were incredibly fast. Vast stretches of Route 4, the main east-west highway through central Vermont, washed away.

Yet, I remember just two and a half weeks after the disaster, Rachel Maddow declared Route 4 in Mendon that day's nominee for  "Best New Thing In The World" 

What had been a gaping canyon left by Irene was now a functioning two lane road again.

You can still sense a certain unease. Will there be another Irene? Has the weather gone out of whack? Has climate change brought us a new normal? After all, we've had lots of weirdness in the weather since Irene.

We've had other floods, most notably in central Vermont in 2013. We just had by far the warmest winter on record earlier this year. What's with this long, long, long spell of dry weather that's been going on for months now?

Whether or not any of this has anything to do with global warming, Irene certainly got Vermonters talking about climate change.

New England has had other tropical systems as strong as Irene, so the storm itself was not unprecedented.

But 2011 was wet, wet, wet, even before Irene. That's what made the flooding so destructive. The ground couldn't take much more water as Irene's downpours arrived. The rain just rushed off Vermont's hills and mountains, creating the state's worst disaster since 1927

That year -- 2011 -- had already brought disastrous weather to Vermont. Several flash floods caused extensive damage during the spring of 2011, especially in the Lamoille River Valley and around Barre, Vermont.

Lake Champlain rose to a record flood, causing additional multi millions of dollars in flood damage along its shores.

Ironically, on the fifth anniversary of Irene, Lake Champlain seems to be closing in on a record low level, due the winter that wasn't earlier this year, and consistently dry, hot, sunny weather since early spring.

Just recently, a Congressional Budget Office report warned that damage from severe weather in future decades is expected to get worse and worse as climate changes. That echoes many other scientific and government reports.

It does so even as we watch other parts of the nation get wrecked in big weather disasters, like what we saw in Louisiana this month.

"When it comes to addressing climate change, the most expensive option is to nothing at all.....We have a financial and moral obligation to combat climate change. We must aggressively transition away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy," Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said recently.

Vermont tried to rebuild  - to the extent the federal government allowed -- with bigger culverts, stronger bridges, better protections against floods, since the assumption from Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration is storms would just keep getting worse in Vermont and everywhere else from climate change.

The state legislature approved measures that would get towns to build larger culverts or, even better, open bottom structures that would allow road beds overhead to better withstand future forceful floods like the one Irene unleashed.

The other shoe will drop at some point, and Vermont will face another disaster. We are resilient and have proven ourselves more than capable of recovering.

But still, every threatening storm does raise that Irene fear just a tiny bit, doesn't it?

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