LINCOLN, Vt. – The capital of Vermont – the state that often tops those “best states to move to avoid climate change” lists – was, until Tuesday afternoon, mostly underwater.
Swollen by record rainfall, the Winooski River claimed nearly all of downtown Montpelier late Monday. Swift water rescue teams helped people escape from the upper floors of apartments not far from the gold-domed State Capitol. Even the governor was forced hike from his house on a snowmobile trail to reach an emergency response center in time to lead a press conference about the still-unfolding disaster. By Wednesday morning, residents and business owners were trudging through mud caked on their front steps and basements to gauge how much they had lost.
Vermonters have seen floods before. But among the scenes of destruction, there was a sense that some threshold had been crossed.
The receding water churning in our streets has been ferried by storm tracks from rapidly warming seas 1,000 miles to the south. The storm dumped four to nine inches of rain on towns up and down the Green Mountain State, where the soil was already saturated. With nowhere else to go, it filled streams locking from the mountains and then rivers like the Winooski, the Mad and the Black and further into Montpelier and towns like Ludlow, Richmond and Weston, where water. submerged much of the fire station.
As the world warms, our benchmarks become increasingly useless – as useless as the notion that there are any places to move to avoid climate change. Americans suffer from a long-standing delusion, a kind of hangover from the era of Manifest Destiny, that there will always be some corner of our vast country to escape to. Its 21st-century form is the notion that one can simply pick up stakes and move somewhere else to get away from this accelerating climate chaos.
Twelve straight days of 110-degree temperatures in Phoenix, after weeks of a punishing heat dome, have weighed on Texas. Wildfire smoke from Canada has obscured the Chicago skyline, just weeks after triggering a spike in asthma hospital admissions in New York and Washington On Sunday, eight inches of rain fell in a few hours near West Point, NY — a “once in a thousand year” event. — even when an entirely different band of violent storms buried the Oklahoma City area also in flood waters. The same day, ocean temperatures off the Florida coast passed the 90 degree mark. Even here in Vermont, standards are being broken. At the end of June we hit an all-time high for air pollution concentrations.
When I moved to my gravelly, wooded strip of land an hour south of Montpelier about a decade ago, I had little illusion that I could insulate my family from climate chaos. Thanks to my chosen profession of climate journalism, I was quite familiar with facts such as: For every degree Celsius of warming, the atmosphere. holds 7 percent more water vapordriving the extreme precipitation events in New England that have increased by 55 percent since 1958, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment.
But there are facts, and then you lie awake at night counting how many sheets of plywood are in the barn if the stream jumps the bank and heads for the basement. It’s pulling ticks — which have recently expanded their empire into my high, cold patch of Vermont, courtesy of warming winters — from my daughters almost every week. It’s making a spare bed for one’s parents to get them out of their riverside cabin.
Our infrastructure was not built for these extremes, for this pace of change. Neither were our dominant risk models. Just two weeks ago, researchers from the First Street Foundation warned in a new study that the database the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses to assess the risk of extreme rainfall events is being outpaced by climate change and needs updating. Americans can now wait experience “once in a hundred year” rainfall events at 20-year intervals, on average. And the trend won’t stop there: That range continues to shrink, thanks to uncontrolled fossil burning.
Monday’s flooding destroyed a temporary bridge across the White River that was built to take traffic while workers built a $24 million replacement bridge. They were set to start pouring concrete this week, as reported by our local non-profit news site, VTDigger. “That was the plan,” said one of the foremen“but Mother Nature changed it.”
The climate jumps the banks, blows past the fences. Another one a recent study found that in the United States, flood risk is not accurately incorporated into property values anywhere – and that overpricing created 200 billion dollar bubble in the country’s housing market. Not surprisingly, Florida is a big part of that story. Somewhat more surprisingly, Vermont is an overrated hot spot as well, according to models of future scenarios of extreme flooding under climate change. This makes the state’s financial architecture and heavy reliance on property taxes for revenue as vulnerable to future climate risk as its physical infrastructure.
Late Monday, a friend in my town wrote an update on the river level, along with the observation that “it’s the coming darkness that makes it more worrisome.”
I knew what she meant. It’s the uncertainty that gets you, that ties that knot of discomfort in your chest. It’s a feeling familiar to anyone who has looked down on raging fires in California or Gulf Coast hurricanes and now to Vermonters as well. And for me, it is connected with something new: the near certainty that this will happen again. And again.
As the Winooski River receded Wednesday, it revealed the only climate refuge that remains: neighbors helping neighbors. “The feeling I got,” a friend who lives in Montpelier wrote to me, “is an overwhelming willingness of people to volunteer, to help in any way they can.”
But the vulnerability of this “brave little state”, like its native son president Calvin Coolidge once called it, was completely stripped. As the flood waters recede, the notion that any place could somehow be insulated from extreme weather and the ravages of a warming climate should be swept away, too, forever.
Jonathan Minglefreelance journalist, is the author of “Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity and Survival on the Roof of the World” and of a forthcoming book on the grassroots and legal battles against new methane gas pipelines.
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