Irene may be first of many

There’s an important news article on the web this morning about climate change … including important for Vermont. The Intergovernmental Program on Climate Change is warning that “extreme” weather events could become much more common.

Among the effects seen worldwide is a shifting northward of hurricane tracks; Tropical Storm Irene was just one example, having been a Category 2 hurricane almost until it came ashore in New York. As Vermont rebuilds from Irene, we need to be concerned about the next “100 year storm,” which is likely to be a gross overstatement by the end of the century.

We are simply not ready for a major storm every 10 to 20 years. Too much of the state (region/Northern Hemisphere) is built on stream banks and on flood plains for major storms. Given, say, Barre/Montpelier’s history of flooding even in springtime conditions, it makes sense to look at the settlement pattern and see if there aren’t ways to encourage development away from the banks of the river. Similarly, should we rebuild at the state office site in Waterbury or find higher ground? This is particularly sensitive given that the state had no backup infrastructure in place for these offices (including disaster management). It’s borderline wacky to put disaster management in a flood zone in the first place; it’s irresponsible to replace it there once it has flooded out.

In Rutland, only one voice on the Board of Aldermen clearly called for condemning the Water Street neighborhood after the Irene flooding. But look at the map and understand that homes on Baxter Street, two streets uphill from Water Street, frequently experience flooded basements in non-tropical storms, and a long-term plan to remove those homes makes more sense than rebuilding time after time. This concept isn’t new in more notoroius floodplains in the middle of the country and along the Gulf Coast, where the federal government has started telling landowners that if they choose to rebuild, they can’t expect disaster aid after the next big flood.

Due to its geography, Vermont is tailor-made for flash floods. That’s the lesson from Irene. Now the IPCC tells us more frequent tropical storm activity is “likely” in our part of the world, and that every dollar spent on prevention now will yield $60 in savings in the event of a disaster later, and it’s incumbent on us to make some good decisions, not just rebuild on the old footprint and expect to go a century before it’s an issue again.

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