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Officials Discuss Flood Danger With Communities

Lake Champlain flooding May 2011
Vermont Governor's Office
Lake Champlain flooding May 2011

Officials from Vermont Emergency Management, the Agency of Natural Resources and the National Weather Service are holding a series of forums this week on flood preparedness.  After Tropical Storm Irene tested the mettle of emergency preparedness managers and responders across the region almost five years ago, officials designed the annual series of meetings to help the state stay prepared.
Back in 2011, the ferocity of spring flooding surprised everyone including then-New York Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald.   “In some parts of the state we saw 13 inches of rain in an hour.  That is totally out of the norm.”

To add insult to injury, only a few months later Tropical Storm Irene ripped through the region, causing some of the worst flooding in Vermont history. Speaking last year, former Vermont Irene Recovery Officer Neale Lunderville remembered the destruction.   “It was a catastrophe the likes I’d never seen in Vermont. Just Mother Nature rolling into these small communities nestled in the Green Mountains and destroying them.  Just utter destruction as if bombs went off.”

Vermont officials were determined to learn from the dual disasters of 2011.  While that year presented some of the worst flooding in history, there is annual shoreline and river flooding — and climate change offers the potential for more intense precipitation events.  The Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security now hosts Springtime Flooding Forums across the state each year.  And even though there has been less than average snowfall this winter, Director Christopher Herrick notes that the ground remains saturated.   “It doesn’t take a lot of rain.  The ground is still kind of saturated. Whatever frost is there is coming up and so there’s not a lot of ability for the soil to absorb water. So we could see a rise if we had a sustained rain. And we want to make sure that people don’t disregard the possibility of flooding.”

Herrick says the forums are an opportunity for municipalities to review annual weather and regulatory changes.   “The National Weather Service give us their projection as to potential hazards.  So those obviously can vary from year to year.  We’ll also talk about mitigation efforts that have taken place and any changes in federal regulation and how do we respond to requests for assistance during a disaster. The thing to remember too in a lot of towns there’s always a significant group of new folks so it’s important for them to stay up to speed with what’s new and actually what we know what works, what we’ve learned from past events.”

National Weather Service Hydrologist Greg Hanson has presented information at some of this year’s meetings.  He explains that it was a record-warm winter with about half the normal snowfall than usual.   “There’s still a little bit of snow in the higher peaks, believe it or not.  So if we do get some heavy rain on top of that there’s still a little bit of a flood threat that the snow melt can add a contribution to.  It’s a lot less than we’ve seen in years past, but there’s still a small spring flood threat there.”

The flood forums provide information on ice conditions including the potential for ice jams.  This year most ice has already melted, and while there were a few minor ice jams and flooding in February, major problems aren’t expected.   Hanson says the tradeoff to this year’s lower flood risk is a heightened fire danger.  “We could be moving into a more prolonged spring wildfire season. Typically we’ve got snow hanging around through mid-March and there’s always a few week dry period where the snow’s gone and before things green up when all that last year’s fallen leaves and the old grass from last year really dries out before things green up. And that creates a little bit of a period of a higher fire danger. This year since we’re drying out in March we could see those dry conditions last a few extra weeks.  So we might have a little bit bigger spring wildfire season.”

The forums are being held in conjunction with National Flood Safety Awareness Week.  Thursday’s meeting will be in Brattleboro and on Friday officials will be in New Haven.

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