A late-season tropical storm. Fast-rising, record-breaking floodwaters. Houses and barns toppled, not just by floodwaters but by frothing rivers taking huge bites out of their banks, pulling hill slopes down from below. Roads destroyed, cutting off access to towns and hamlets. Vermont, among all the states the storm swept through, the main victim of the flooding and destruction.
Sound familiar? Nope, it’s not 2011, it’s 1927.
The record-breaking floods of 1927, though worse in terms of water volume and loss of life and property, were remarkably similar to the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene last year. But the historical contexts for each of these events are markedly different.
“There are obviously a whole bunch of similarities between Irene and back then,” said Nicholas Clifford, an historian and Middlebury College professor emeritus. Clifford is the co-author, with his late wife Deborah Clifford, of a book on Vermont’s recovery following the 1927 flood, “The Troubled Roar of the Waters: Vermont in Flood and Recovery, 1927-1931.”
The geography of the 1927 flood damage was similar to that of Irene, said Clifford. Then, as now, the towns far in the north, like St. Albans, were virtually untouched. Villages high in the Green Mountains, like Stowe, escaped nearly unscathed. But towns along the White and Winooski Rivers, especially along the flanks of the Green Mountains, were ravaged. The Vermont State Hospital, for example, which in 1927 occupied all of what is now the Waterbury State Office Complex was badly flooded, just as it was in 2011.
By virtually every metric, the 1927 flood was worse and took longer to recover. The 1927 floods caused $8.5 billion (in 2011 dollars) in damages. Irene caused at least $1 billion. An estimated 84 people were killed by the 1927 flood, six by Irene. In 1927, nearly 1,300 highway bridges were destroyed, while in 2011 about 300 were damaged in some way. The river in Montpelier reached 27 feet in 1927, and 19 feet in 2011. No one knows how many towns were hit in 1927. In 2011, 220 towns were damaged. In 1927, it took three months for all the communities that had been isolated to be reconnected by roads. In 2011, the Vermont Agency of Transportation completed that work in three days.
One commonality, however, was the surge of volunteers who helped save people and property and restore order. According to Clifford, scores of students from the University of Vermont (UVM), Norwich University, and Dartmouth College skipped classes to help in 1927. The volunteer effort in 2011 was similarly huge. UVM even hired a part-time Recovery Coordinator to manage the gush of eager volunteers.
But Clifford noted that “the big difference of course, and it’s a huge one, is the role of the federal government.”
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In 1927, aid from the federal government was virtually non-existent. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) did not exist. (The agency was formed nearly five decades later. Vermont Sen. Robert Stafford helped to pass the Disaster Relief and Emergency Act in 1974, which was designed to coordinate federal disaster assistance efforts and laid the groundwork for the creation of FEMA in 1978.)
“There was nothing like FEMA,” said Clifford. “The idea of the federal government stepping in if you got into trouble with massive help was just not there. The government occasionally did make grants, but it was not something you could count on, not something you could apply for as a right.”
“Vermonters used to boast that they did it all by themselves with no help from the U.S. government, which is not entirely true—the feds did come through with a grant of $2.6 million for bridge and highway rebuilding,” continued Clifford. “Apart from that and $1 million from the American Red Cross,” Vermonters did—and paid for—the recovery work by themselves in the years following the 1927 flood.
By contrast, the June 2012 Irene recovery report estimated federal support at $533 million—though that estimate includes information disseminated before the state and FEMA miscommunicated over how much money the state would realize for the Waterbury State Office Complex and the Vermont State Hospital. FEMA is expected to announce how much it will give the state for those projects in the next few weeks.
Clifford said that after the 1927 flood, Vermonters pushed for flood control. A panel of engineers planned 85 dams across the state, which would have flooded significant areas of land.
“Most of that was never done, partly because it would have flooded an awful lot of very good farm land,” said Clifford. “Expense was part of it,” too. Mostly, it was state representative George Aiken’s suspicion of the big power companies that put a stop to it.
By contrast, the word most often heard when speaking of the future of flooding in Vermont today is “resilience,” not “control.” Vermonters are now looking for ways to protect their historic downtowns and other valuable infrastructure from flooding, while letting rivers move and dissipate energy in forests and wetlands.
Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner David Mears believes flood resilience is critical to Vermont’s wellbeing.
“It’s very expensive and dangerous to just build stuff in the floodplains or to fill in wetlands or to develop on hillsides where there’s high erosion risk. All of those activities have real consequences. It’s not just about protecting fish and wildlife; it’s about public health and safety. If we don’t get smarter about making these decisions, we’re going to get stuck in this loop where we have to argue with the federal government over how much we’re going to get,” he said.
Although it’s unlikely anyone in Vermont forgot the terror of the 1927 flood, only one editorial appeared in the Burlington Free Press in November 1928, marking the one-year anniversary. This is in sharp contrast with the flurry of newspaper articles this month commemorating the one-year anniversary of Irene.
Just two years after the 1927 flood, the Great Depression hit, and pretty soon the flood became a distant memory superseded by more immediate concerns.
A late 19th century settling pattern
Dona Brown, a professor of history at the University of Vermont, said Vermonters have not always had such conflicts with rivers.
“Most Abenaki settlements near rivers and in floodplains were summer villages, mainly for the purpose of growing gardens. While they did maintain permanent villages there, they were also more mobile, with many people moving to uplands for the hunting season, for example.”
Brown said that European settlers also avoided settling in flood-prone areas.
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“The first Anglo settlers did not tend to settle on rivers or in the lowlands, but rather on hillsides and even on hilltops.” This is due, in part, to the widespread presence of beavers, which kept the lowlands marshy.
The trapping of beavers in the late 1800s led to more dramatic floods because the beaver dams weren’t present to slow floodwaters down. And the cutting of much of Vermont’s forests in the 1800s also led to an increase in flash floods because trees weren’t there to intercept rainwater—it just fell on the land and ran off into streams, pulling soil with it.
“It wasn’t till the mid-19th century that most Vermont towns came to center in river valleys,” said Brown. She cited Randolph as an example. “Randolph Center, the original 18th century settlement, is on high ground, and what is now the real commercial center of Randolph is down in the river valley.”
Brown said the railroad lines built along rivers were “the magnet that pulled Vermont towns downhill in the mid-19th century.”
Farming was also pushed downhill, said Brown. “In the past, particularly before World War II, Vermont farms were far more diversified in their use of land than they have become.” Farmers used the uplands for a variety of crops and livestock.
“After World War II, market forces pushed Vermont farms to…specialize only in dairying, to increase the size of their herds, to feed more corn to increase milk production,” Brown said. “This led to the pattern we now think of as ‘traditional,’ but really isn’t: corn on the flat lands by the river, cows grazing on slightly higher land, no crops on the hillsides.”
This settlement pattern, while it allowed our forests to grow back, is more vulnerable to flooding.
Brown sees Vermonters’ relationship with rivers shifting again.
“Since the early 20th century, when people put a lot of faith in engineering solutions, it has become increasingly clear that there are limits to what we can do to control rivers,” she said. “It seems to me that earlier generations of Vermonters had a sensibility we should try to emulate: they valued diversity, in their crops and in their land use…. They anticipated that there would be floods, droughts, hot and cold snaps, and they tried to adapt to that in advance, to make their operations resilient.”
Mears is confident about our progress, but cautious about the future.
“We’re already better prepared now than we were a year ago,” he said. “A year from now we’ll be a lot further along. It may take five years, 10 years, before we fully realize these lessons. If I have any fear it’s that we’ll wait too long, that our effort will fade because people’s memories of the floods will fade.”
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