Energy & Environment

Experts expect climate change to cause more flooding in Vermont. Is the state ready?

Paul Fraser was Jamaica’s emergency management director during both Tropical Storm Irene and the flooding in August 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

JAMAICA — It started raining on a Thursday. When Paul Fraser stepped outside that afternoon, water, up to his ankles, rushed down his street. 

He knew the river near his home hadn’t yet overflowed its banks. The water was coming down from a mountainside creek, the product of several blown culverts. 

The rain came down fast — 5 inches in 24 hours. Most of it fell within several hours, washing out roads and flooding basements. Fraser, the town’s emergency management director, knew from the marks of silt on his basement walls that, at one point, water there had risen to two and a half feet. 

This series features reflections and lessons from the historic flooding of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. Read the full series.

In some ways, this storm looked like Tropical Storm Irene. In fact, Fraser — who’d also been Jamaica’s emergency management director back then — took to calling it “Irene light.”  

This storm, nameless, hit southern Vermont in early August 2021, almost 10 years after Irene swept through many of the same Vermont towns. It came with little warning and caused more than $5 million in damage in southern parts of the state, mostly to roads. 

Since Irene hit Vermont Aug. 27, 2011, many have warned that climate change would make similar rain and floods more frequent, and the August storm appears to be an example of that.

The small town of Jamaica, home to “around 1,000 residents, plus a cat or a dog,” according to Fraser, is a geographical bowl. Mountainside streams intersect with mountainside roads before emptying into Ball Mountain Brook, which cuts through the town center and connects with the West River. 

When Irene deposited 7 inches of rain on the town, the rivers swelled, consuming roads and bridges. Five homes washed downstream.  

Jamaica is one of many towns in Vermont that is built along the banks of a river. Because of this, inundation flooding and fluvial erosion are the “No. 1 hazards in Vermont,” said Erica Bornemann, director of Vermont Emergency Management.

More intense rainfall

As global temperatures continue to warm due to climate change, instances of flooding will almost certainly become more intense and more frequent.

When greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen dioxide, trap heat in the planet’s atmosphere, the warming increases the air’s capacity for evaporation, which can increase moisture levels. 

“If the moisture is in the air, then you can get more things like condensation, clouds and, if the conditions are right, precipitation,” said Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, the state climatologist and a member of Vermont’s Climate Council.

Vermont’s climate is already changing, she said. Along with more intense drought, heat waves and abnormal seasonal patterns, extreme weather like Irene and the early August storm are becoming more common.

A report issued Aug. 9 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that every region in the world is already facing changes in climate caused by human-produced greenhouse gases. Those changes are expected to increase, and “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

This summer, wildfires have burned areas along the West Coast that are cumulatively the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and the smoke has degraded air quality all the way across the continent. A heat wave in the Northwest killed more than 100 people, and analysts have linked that heat wave to climate change.

The water cycle is intensifying, the report says, bringing “more intense rainfall and associated flooding, as well as more intense drought in many regions.” 

On average, precipitation has been increasing in Vermont. According to the Vermont Climate Assessment, published in 2014, average annual precipitation had increased by 5.9 inches per year, and 48% of that increase had occurred since 1990 — and much of that has been in mountainous regions of Vermont, where some rivers have caused flooding problems. 

And, as spring temperatures arrive sooner, melting the ice earlier, there is “an 80% increase in the likelihood of high stream flows (and flooding) in coming decades, particularly in the winter months as snow shifts to rain or freezing rain,” the assessment says.

Yet, the northern reaches of the state were still experiencing drought conditions early this month, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

Increasing precipitation is a trend, Dupigny-Giroux says, but it’s messier than that. Vermont will see increased variability in climate, including weather extremes — more droughts, floods and extreme temperatures. Average annual temperatures in Vermont have increased by 1.3 degrees since 1960.  

The Ball Mountain Brook runs alongside Pikes Falls Road in Jamaica. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

‘Blown out’

When Bornemann visited southern Vermont after the August storm, she said what she saw was “truly the result of flash flooding.” 

She described the torn roads, washed-out culverts and structures that were too small for the water they were meant to carry — all “blown out.” 

Bornemann, who leads Vermont Emergency Management, said her department thinks a lot about climate change. 

“We understand every single disaster that is happening is happening more frequently, and has increased variability in terms of the precipitation types that are occurring, and the severity of the disasters is increasing,” she said. 

Vermont Emergency Management is responsible not only for preparing its own team; it also coordinates responses of other statewide and local bodies around the state that are ready to act if there’s a disaster. So what does that look like?

Bornemann said that, since Irene, efforts have been made to increase flood resilience across the state. She breaks the concept of resilience into three parts: immediate response, preparedness and long-term recovery. 

Before Irene, Vermont had six “swiftwater assets,” which are local departments with personnel and equipment trained and designed to deal with flash floods. They can be deployed anywhere in the state, and the department has doubled their number in the last 10 years. 

An Urban Search and Rescue Team — similar to the team that assisted after the Champlain Towers condominium complex in Surfside, Fla., recently collapsed — can handle fallen structures and extensive damage. A grant from the Department of Homeland Security will increase the amount of equipment available for those crews, including a new addition of 20 boats. 

“There’s a recognition for the need in the fact that we are very vulnerable to flooding every single year,” Bornemann said. 

Before Irene, Vermont’s hazard mitigation and recovery programs were housed in the Agency of Transportation, but they’ve since moved to the Department of Emergency Management. 

Those recovery programs pay special attention to “areas that are getting repetitive loss, and implementing projects to build resilience into those areas and break the cycle of disaster,” Bornemann said. 

“Irene resulted in about $34 million in hazard mitigation funding,” Bornemann said. Now, Vermont is about to receive “another huge tranche of money for hazard mitigation” coming from a variety of sources, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Rescue Plan Act and the Covid-19 disaster declaration for hazard mitigation. 

“We have a real opportunity to build even more resilience to hazards that are exacerbated by climate change, like flooding,” she said. 

Planning ahead

Preparation is also occurring on a town-by-town level, which is crucial, considering town officials are often the first to respond to disaster. Towns each have a different exposure to flood risk, so their plans vary. 

“For example, my town in Hyde Park, we are more susceptible to flash flooding because of hillside streams,” Bornemann said. “We have one large river, which is the Lamoille River, but there isn’t a lot in the way of that river for inundation flooding.”

Nearby Johnson, she said, is located directly on the Gihon River, and has a high level of exposure from both flash flooding and inundation flooding. 

Towns can armor ditches, increase the size of their culverts, and restore their floodplains. In some cases, the approach is “actually, proactively buying properties that are homes and getting them out of the floodplain,” Bornemann said. 

Resilience, however, is not just about infrastructure. It’s also about forming networks of people who are familiar and prepared to respond to the changing climate. 

To that end, Vermont Emergency Management encourages towns to have an approved emergency management plan, but most of the other preparations are enforced with carrots, not sticks, Bornemann said. 

Towns have greater access to state funding during disasters if they submit hazard mitigation plans, which are a step up from emergency management plans. They can also adopt road and bridge standards, and towns can limit their obligations to 7.5% of all damages by adopting flood corridor standards or bylaws. 

“It’s on a range of a scale, and it is a really positive incentivization to towns to have that plan,” Bornemann said. 

Are towns adopting these plans? It depends. 

Erica Bornemann
Erica Bornemann, director of Vermont Emergency Management, in February 2020. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“We certainly have a high percentage of towns that have local emergency management plans, and a lesser percentage of towns that have a hazard mitigation plan,” Bornemann said. “It’s a much more complicated and involved process.”

Bornemann said the plans likely aren’t perfect, and there’s room for growth, especially as climate change increases the severity, frequency and range of the disasters. Still, a lot has changed at the state level since Irene, she said.

“I don’t think it’s been solved,” she said. “The question of whether we’re prepared for all of the hazards related to climate change — I can’t say that we are. We’ve done a lot of investment in flooding, but we’re also seeing things like extended drought. And we’re also seeing things like invasive species. It’s a multifaceted challenge that we have to be prepared for.”

Vermont’s Climate Council, created under the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020, is charged with drastically reducing the state’s emissions and producing recommendations to prepare the people who live in Vermont for a changing climate. 

A council subcommittee, called Just Transitions, seeks to ensure that all Vermonters receive equitable protections. The subcommittee’s process is baked into the other committees’ work in an effort to ensure that all council members are considering every Vermonter. 

Mobile homes vulnerable   

One set of residents particularly vulnerable to flooding live in mobile home parks. During Irene, 133 mobile homes were destroyed, Vermont Public Radio reported at the time. Many parks have been grandfathered out of Act 250 regulations, and they’re often situated in floodplains. 

Dan Baker, an associate professor at the University of Vermont’s Department of Community Development and Applied Economics, has studied the vulnerability of mobile home parks to flooding. 

“Mobile or manufactured homes provide a really important source of affordable housing in the state,” Baker said. “It is a type of affordable housing where people own their own home, which is — financially, emotionally, psychologically, in terms of housing security — that’s a really important aspect of these homes.” 

But many of these homes aren’t protected from climatic changes, such as heat, wind and flooding. Some mobile homes that were built decades ago may not be anchored properly, Baker said, which means the homes could be unearthed even in less severe storms. 

“Then you have financial and economic challenges that make it challenging for mobile or manufactured home owners to make those repairs,” he said. 

Moving the parks isn’t simple, either.

“Moving is an enormous personal and economic challenge, and social challenge,” he said. “It's also, where would folks move to? And would it be enormously expensive?”

Baker said moving mobile home parks from private ownership toward co-op and nonprofit ownership have broadened owners’ ability to make necessary changes and preparations. About 44% of mobile home park lots are now part of co-ops or nonprofits — a “huge change” that’s still increasing, he said. 

It’s also vital to create emergency plans so owners and residents of the parks are connected to local officials and first responders. 

“Like, where are the exits and entrances, and where would a fire truck or emergency vehicle turn around? What's the history of flooding in that park? Do they have a plan for how to evacuate?” Baker said. 

Social organization and planning can sometimes be overlooked, but they will become more important as the intensity of the climatic events increases, Baker said.

For many in Jamaica, flood damage in August 2021 brought back memories of Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

New spokes

Near Jamaica, the Mount Snow ski resort in West Dover has spent millions to create the most powerful snowmaking system in the East. When warm weather hits the mountain during winter — which has become increasingly common — snowmakers can repopulate 100 acres of bare ski trails with manmade snow in 30 hours, according to Kevin Harrington, mountain operations manager. 

In Jamaica, something similar is happening with roads and flooding. 

Fraser, the emergency management director, visited one of the mountainous roads that had been scoured during the August storm. When he came back the next day, he found that the road crews had repaired it overnight. 

A member of the road crew, who was using a bulldozer that day to assemble rocks that would form a structural support for the road, told VTDigger he was also part of the crew that rebuilt the roads during the Irene recovery 10 years ago. 

In the time between Irene and the August storm, Fraser said, the emergency management position has changed from “hypothetical to memory.” 

“We can go out and look at the scars,” he said. “We’re responding to this much more quickly. We’re able to get out much faster. We know what we’re doing; we know where the resources are. Instead of reinventing the wheel each time, we now have a wheel; we just modified the spokes a little bit for this one.”

Read more in VTDigger's After Irene series.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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