Vermont, a state known for peaceful green mountains, grazing cows and neat covered bridges, isn’t often seen as a place where mudslides threaten highways, rivers heave with debris and murky, propane-tainted floodwaters fill downtown streets.
But those kinds of images of destruction were burned into memory when Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in 2011, and led to a drastic reassessment of how to protect the state from storms supercharged by a warming climate.
A powerful storm hit Vermont again this week, causing severe flooding, damaging thousands of homes and businesses, and revealing the effectiveness of some mitigation measures taken since Irene. At the same time, officials and experts said, the storm showed the need for continued adaptation as storms become more extreme and less predictable.
“You hope that any event like this keeps people alert, and thinking about the future,” said Frank Magilligan, a Dartmouth College geography professor and river scientist who studied flood hydrology and Irene’s regional effects. “It’s not going to be a one-off, and you can’t stick your head in the sand.”
No injuries or deaths were reported, but state leaders said Wednesday that the full extent of the damage from the latest storm was still being assessed, with ongoing flooding in areas, dozens of roads closed and some communities almost completely wiped out. More rain is forecast in the coming days, raising concerns that some problems could soon flood again.
Yet even as the emergency response continued, some leaders called for longer-term planning to build on the lessons of the 2011 storm and face with more urgency the unpleasant likelihood that devastating floods will occur more often.
“I’ve seen an increase in records being broken, records that have stood for decades or even a century,” Rep. Becca Balint said at a news conference in Berlin, Vt., on Wednesday. “We really need to start to better understand what it’s going to look like in 10 or 20 years, so we can use our mitigation dollars to help reduce those impacts and help these systems be more resilient.”
After the devastation 12 years ago, of a storm that killed six people in the state and caused millions in damage, state and local leaders pushed for changes designed to ensure that future storms would do less damage.
State engineers studied the 34 bridges that Irene destroyed, and replaced them with new ones that minimized the number of large support piers in the water, which blocked debris flowing down the rivers and caused it to build up and damage roads and bridges. Only two bridges are known to have been destroyed in the storm this week, said Joe Flynn, the state’s transportation secretary.
To move more people out of harm’s way, the state increased restrictions on building in floodplains, and began a buyback program that removed 150 homes from those areas, Dr. Magilligan said. This effort mitigates risk in two ways, he said: “It gets people out of danger, and it opens up more places for the water to go, slowing the flow.”
But many homes remain near rivers. And even some homeowners who rebuilt after Irene, and who tried to add new safeguards, found this week that they weren’t enough. Bill Korzon, 68, a hard-hit Ludlow resident, said he raised his mobile home 16 inches after it took on four inches of water in the 2011 storm, warping and wobbly floors and resulting in a mold infestation.
However, the house flooded again on Monday with at least an inch of water, and by Wednesday the floors had already begun to wobble. Mr. Korzon said he does not have flood insurance.
“It’s a lot, and you get tired of it,” said Mr. Korzon, a longtime ski instructor at nearby Okemo Mountain Resort who moved to Vermont from Connecticut nine years ago when his wife retired. “I will fix this and do everything I can. But I was 56 last time and now I’m 68 – it’s a lot different.”
He said he and his wife might consider leaving Vermont, a state they’ve long loved for its peace and quiet. “Maybe we’re moving down south,” he said.
In Johnson, 100 miles north, Joie Lehouillier, an organic farmer, said she also made changes after Tropical Storm Irene — moving some fields, storing equipment on higher ground and digging trenches to hold water.
None of it made much of a difference this time, she said Wednesday as she surveyed the muddy ground and assessed her lost crops. “When it hit, it happened so fast,” she said. “Even if we had anticipated that, I’m not sure we could have done anything.”
There was some good news for the state’s farmers: Vermont’s agricultural laboratory, which was destroyed by a flood in 2011 and rebuilt on higher ground, escaped unscathed from this week’s storm. As a result, it remained open, allowing for immediate soil safety testing after the flood, said Anson Tebbetts, Vermont’s secretary of agriculture, food and markets.
“We learned our lesson there,” he said, “and protected a valuable asset.”
In Waterbury, one of the towns hardest hit by Irene, there were many signs of the latest storm Wednesday: a saturated ball field, bushes wrapped in mud, and residents in waders filling trash cans. But the city’s sewage pumping station — rebuilt with new flood-proof technology after it was destroyed in 2011 — worked “perfectly” despite a tenfold increase in water flow, said Bill Woodruff, the city’s director of public works.
That investment, along with a new municipal building rebuilt since 2011 on higher ground, has helped the city of 5,000 people continue to function.
In a landscape like Vermont’s, however, not every risk can be mitigated.
“You can’t change height,” said Mr. Woodruff. “We’re built in a river valley, and you can’t change that.”
Reporting was contributed by Richard Beaven, Abby Goodnough and Hilary Swift.