RUTLAND — In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont learned several lessons about how to prepare for the wrath of climate change, state officials often say.
Now Vermont is sharing what it learned with the Obama administration, as the nation responds to drought, heavy rain and other extreme weather patterns linked to a changing climate.
President Barack Obama’s principal environmental policy adviser toured the state Thursday to witness firsthand Vermont’s recovery from the damage left by Irene in 2011.
“We got a chance to see some of the impacts that are still quite visible from Irene,” said Michael Boots, acting chair of the White House Council of Environmental Quality. “But also some of the really innovative, and creative, and really pragmatic work that people here in Vermont have been doing to respond.”
During his trip, the Shumlin administration proposed changes to how the federal government can better support states as they recover from and prepare for natural disasters.
Boots said extreme weather costs the nation hundreds of billions of dollars every year. That’s why Obama launched a plan to hear feedback from communities around the country on how to be more resilient to climate change and cut carbon pollution, he said.
“Sometimes, that means creating some new incentives that don’t currently exist, making sure that our federal programs and federal dollars are encouraging the best possible activity, sometime it means getting the federal government out of the way,” Boots said.
During Boots’ tour along U.S. 4 from Hartford to Rutland, the administration made recommendations that they say would allow the state to use federal dollars more effectively to prepare for what will be more severe weather to come.
Sue Minter, deputy secretary of the Agency of Transportation, served as the state’s Irene recovery officer. She said states need more flexibility to spend (and receive) federal disaster recovery money.
The state has purchased about 79 flood-damaged properties with about $14.5 million in federal grant money, according to the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, which is assisting the state in its home buy-out program.
But two-and-a-half years after Irene, there are still 24 properties that the federal government has not approved for funding.
“It’s taking a long time to get there,” Minter told Boots during the ride, pointing to sections of road wiped out by flooding in 2011. “We are incredibly grateful for the money. If we could help facilitate getting there quicker it would be great.”
The state received its home buy-out money from the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, Federal Emergency Management Agency and other grants. Minter said these funding streams should be consolidated.
The Shumlin administration is also looking for new cash to begin implementing part of its own climate resilience plan.
Deborah Markowitz, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said FEMA’s flood zone maps are outdated.
That’s why she said the state needs money to redraw the maps to include the impact of runoff from Vermont’s steep slopes during heavy rainfall.
“It doesn’t really reflect the actual risk,” she told Boots, pointing to FEMA’s narrow flood zone maps.
The tour ended at Green Mountain Power’s Energy Innovations Center (EIC) in Rutland, where Gov. Peter Shumlin and energy industry representatives discussed Vermont’s goal to source 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.