In Windham, Vermont, a wooden A-frame house that normally evokes blustery winters sits on a roadway transformed by record rainfall into a river. Twenty miles away in Bridgewater, a man wades through waist-high waters clutching his belongings. In Montpelier, the state’s capital, life jacket-clad rescuers navigate rubber rescue boats, while in Berlin a helicopter crew extricates three people and a cat named Cricket.
Three days after a storm dumped nine inches of rain on Vermont — more than twice its typical rainfall for all of July — parts of the state are still inundated, and more rain is coming. The flooding bears an eerie resemblance to 2011, when Hurricane Irene killed eight people in Vermont, destroyed homes and sheared a number of iconic covered bridges off of their foundations. Since then, the state has made major strides on flood preparation, but this week is making clear the scope of the threat ahead.
“It has been a rough year for Vermont,” says Lauren Oates, director of policy & government relations at The Nature Conservancy Vermont. She points to the state’s dry spring, ongoing drought, air pollution from Canadian wildfires and now flooding. Still, “I can say with great clarity that we are far better off [now] than we were when Irene hit,” Oates says. “We learned a lot as a state and as a collection of communities about how to live and work within and near our rivers.”
Oates would know: In 2018, as Vermont’s hazard mitigation officer, she helped usher in the state’s most recent hazard mitigation plan. (FEMA requires all states to have such a plan, updated every five years, to receive certain pots of federal funding.) More of an overhaul than an update to the 2013 iteration, the plan was largely focused on helping Vermont manage new risks brought about by climate change, including flooding.
Flooding has long been Vermont’s most common natural hazard. That’s in part due to the state’s north-south and east-west mountain ridges, whose upsloping effects cause rain to concentrate, says Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, Vermont’s state climatologist. “Every time air is forced to rise, and it cools and condenses, and then it rains itself out — that mountain barrier is critically important in setting that up,” she says.
At the same time, even though “Vermont’s not coastal, we’re not that far from the coast,” says Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, one of 11 such commissions providing technical assistance to municipalities across Vermont. “So as you have these [weather] systems pumping in Atlantic moisture, it causes the storms to potentially dump more rain on us.”
Climate change is exacerbating this threat. As the planet warms, roughly 90% of that heat is being stored in the oceans, according to NASA. Warming oceans lead to more evaporation, which means more moisture in the air, which can lead to more precipitation. Both the National Climate Assessment and Vermont’s own climate assessment make clear that the state faces more frequent and potentially more disastrous flooding due to climate change. The latter report notes that the number of days in which Vermont got more than an inch of rainfall — known as heavy precipitation events — is up 40% since the 1900s, to an average of 8.7 days per year. Across New England, that figure is expected to keep climbing by 15% over the historical baseline.
“We shouldn’t be surprised that this [flood] happened. And it’s going to happen again. And again. And again after that,” says Kevin Geiger, director of planning at the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission in Woodstock, Vermont.
After Hurricane Irene, which caused more than $18 billion in damage across the US, Vermont did step up its flooding preparation. The state adopted new road and bridge standards and pushed for federal funding to increase the size of bridges and culverts (tunnels that channel water under structures such as bridges and roadways). Campany says clogged culverts were behind a lot of Vermont’s lost bridges during Irene.
The state also started buying out homes in particularly risky locales. Since 2011, Vermont has purchased roughly 150 homes and businesses and demolished them to allow for perpetual greenspace. During this week’s flooding, “there were many places around here where the river went through what was once a house,” says Geiger. “It’s not a story because it’s just some grass and trees and stuff. Which is really, really nice.”
Buying out homes doesn’t just get Vermonters out of harm’s way; it also gives rivers more room to move and meander by reconnecting them to their historical floodplains.
“The way that rivers want to move is the way that we want to hike,” says Oates. “You don’t want to hike straight up a mountain on a trail because it’s really hard. So we build trails with switchbacks, which is longer but it makes it a lot easier. That’s the way that rivers want to flow.”
But while Vermont has made significant strides in the decade since Irene, those efforts pale in comparison to what it faces in the future. Roughly 75% of the state’s rivers are still disconnected from their historical floodplains, Oates says; when extreme rainfall occurs, those rivers are more likely to try and overflow their way back to their original floodplain. Geiger estimates that about 10,000 homes still need to be bought out.
Some of Vermont’s practical hurdles to more aggressive climate prep are unique to New England. The state has more than 250 municipalities and no county governments, a setup it shares with Connecticut, Rhode Island, and half of Massachusetts. That means decisions are often made by individual towns with small staffs and limited resources. When there’s a federal disaster, that fragmentation forces the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate with each local leader instead of a few major cities and counties.
“Our towns are just struggling with their day-to-day work,” Campany says. “So when it comes to planning for things like climate adaptation [and] resilience and implementing things like local hazard-mitigation plans …that can be really hard for a town to do.”
Even towns that do prepare can still be flooded by an upstream neighbor. “If one town has really bad river management or poor drainage, or doesn’t have access to its floodplain, those rivers and high precipitation events just get pushed down to the next community,” Oates says.
The 2018 plan that Oates helped oversee tries to encourage local action by tying state disaster-recovery aid to investment in hazard mitigation: The more a town invests, the less it would have to contribute to a recovery effort in the aftermath of a disaster.
The plan also includes a suggestion that has proven to be particularly unpalatable to town leaders, involving risky areas known as river corridors. While a home in a floodplain might be inundated from below — causing significant damage but leaving the structure intact — in a river corridor the river can jump its bank and chart a whole new course, pushing structures from their foundations such that they resettle downstream, totally destroyed. Although this is Vermont’s primary form of flooding, it’s not accounted for in FEMA flood-tracking, and very few towns in the state have agreed to prohibit future development in these areas.
“Only 10% of our towns adopted that,”Oates says, “which means 90% are still allowing it.”
Was this article valuable?
Here are more articles you may enjoy.