Vermont spent millions on flood mitigation after Tropical Storm Irene. Did it work?
During Tropical Storm Irene, the Middlebury River spilled over its banks, seeping into homes and flooding Route 125. Town officials were forced to evacuate all of East Middlebury, including Susan Shashok.
“It was really difficult to see the water come down and infiltrate my apartment,” Shashok said during a Middlebury selectboard meeting earlier this month.
After this month’s devastating flood hit, Shashok woke up to a very different scene — the river had stayed put. Shashok credits a recently completed mitigation project.
“From what I can see, it’s working the way it’s supposed to,” Shashok said during the selectboard meeting.
The $2 million project along a mile long stretch of the Middlebury River included reinforcing the banks to prevent erosion, updating a 1930s-era flood wall, and increasing the river’s flood storage capacity. The work, which was partially funded by the feds, was finally finished in 2021. And it proved its merit during both the initial storm on July 9-10 and a subsequent rain storm three days later that triggered a flood warning.
“If this project hadn’t been installed, it would have been catastrophic in East Middlebury,” said Emmalee Cherington, Middlebury’s director of public works planning.
The infrastructure upgrades in East Middlebury were among the many flood mitigation efforts undertaken by state agencies and municipalities after Irene. State officials say it appears many of the post-Irene upgrades held up during this month’s storm.
“What happened after Irene is we learned in the end that nature wins,” said Sue Minter, former deputy secretary at the Agency of Transportation, who served as Vermont’s Irene recovery czar. “And that we, the road builders, the infrastructure builders, really needed to work in concert with and learn from the river scientists.”
While state officials are still assessing damage from this month’s storm, it appears, in some ways, to be less severe than Tropical Storm Irene, which damaged 500 miles of state road and 200 bridges and washed away or damaged nearly 1,000 culverts.
During this storm, the state closed 128 roads totaling 282 miles. As of Wednesday, four state bridges remained closed, according to the Agency of Transportation.
But if post-Irene upgrades are credited with minimizing damage in some areas this month, the early returns also suggest that some communities that haven’t updated infrastructure paid a heavy price, and even those that did may not have gone far enough. And in some places, even aggressive upgrades were overwhelmed by catastrophic flooding.
“Fixes after Irene held up … places that were never fixed up kept getting a little worse,” said Pete Fellows, GIS manager at Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission. “So the takeaway is we're in a game of whack-a-mole.”
In Barre, the site of some of the worst flooding this month, available evidence suggests that recent home buyouts and flood mitigation efforts reduced the potential flooding, but will probably need to go much further to protect against future storms.
“We completed the projects that we could,” former Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon said last week. “It’s also very clear that it wasn’t enough.”
In 2017, Barre City bought out five flood-prone homes on Reid Street, Harrington Ave, and Brook Street that hugged Gunners Brook, a tributary to the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River. Those homes were subject to repeated flooding, and officials hoped removing them would increase the brook’s floodplain, giving the water space to overflow without damaging homes. The city also installed trash racks and demolished a bridge to keep woody debris from piling up in the brook and clogging it, which led to flooding in the past.
The trash racks successfully prevented Gunners Brook from clogging, preventing some damage, but the heavy rainfall nevertheless caused Stevens Branch to overflow, Lauzon said.
Local officials say the recent disaster highlights the need for Barre to do more flood mitigation work, but the cost could be a significant hurdle. The work at Gunners Brook alone cost just over $1 million. The city was able to afford it because it was fully financed by a collaboration between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state of Vermont, and the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission after a competitive process, Lauzon said.
“When you’re a municipality with a $10 million annual budget and you’re looking at a flood mitigation project that could cost $15 million, you know, the math just didn’t work,” Lauzon said.
The city is still figuring out how many homes were damaged in this month’s flooding, said Nicolas Storellicastro, Barre’s city manager. It was too soon to know what flood mitigation projects might be useful, and if home buyouts would be part of that plan.
“We'll have to have all strategies on the table,” Storellicastro said. “This is unfortunately maybe a new, relatively normal occurrence and so we just have to have all options there.”
Cambridge and Jeffersonville
Cambridge, much like Barre, worked to update its flood mitigation infrastructure after Irene. And similar to the Granite City, those updates worked, for a time, during this month’s storm.
The Lamoille County town of 3,839, which includes the village of Jeffersonville, used FEMA funds to enlarge two culverts in Jeffersonville under Route 15 near the confluence of the Lamoille and Brewster Rivers.
One of the new culverts replaced an old 18-inch pipe with a new 2-feet-deep by 13-feet-wide “box culvert,” according to the Lamoille County Planning Commission’s website. The town also replaced an old, undersized bridge over the Brewster River that flooded on an “almost annual basis.” The work also included restoring some floodplains near the bridge.
During this month’s storm, the mitigation measures worked — at least for a while. But the volume of water quickly overwhelmed the culverts, said Jonathan DeLaBruere, Cambridge’s town administrator.
“It wasn't designed to handle that kind of flow,” he said. “But for about an hour we saw it doing its job and really handling that excess flood water extremely well."
Experts say it can be hard for one mitigation project to stave off flooding during a storm as severe as the one that hit Vermont this month.
“There's sometimes just a bigger flood that there is no fix for,” said Jessica Louisos, an engineer who worked on the flood mitigation project in Jeffersonville. “For those larger floods, they can be lessened by our projects — and they are lessened — but it takes more than one project.”
Close to 50 homes were damaged during the flooding in Cambridge and Jeffersonville, according to DeLaBruere.
While it’s still early, DeLaBruere said he’s wondering if the town should consider home buyouts as a future mitigation measure. But he said those will be challenging conversations. Property owners must agree, and land acquired through buyouts can never be used for construction again — reducing the city’s tax revenue.
“That's a tough pill to swallow,” DeLaBruere said. “But I think we're gonna keep experiencing the same type of devastation and damage that we have done unless we really look at this from a larger lens.”
After Irene, towns across Vermont bought and demolished 157 homes in places like Stockbridge, Hartford, and Pittsfield.
In Northfield, the town bought seven homes next to the Dog River on Water Street and knocked them down, to help reestablish the river’s floodplain.
When the July storm hit, the Dog River once again spilled over its banks, flooding Water Street, including areas where those homes once stood. Northfield didn’t see as much rain during this storm as it had during Irene. But it also appears the creation of a larger floodplain helped reduce the severity of the flooding, said Michele Braun, a former planner in Northfield in charge of the buyouts.
“It looks like the flood elevation is about six inches lower in this event than it would have been if we hadn't done the project,” said Braun, who’s now executive director of Friends of the Winooski. “Six inches doesn't sound like a lot, but it can definitely make a difference when it's coming up your front door.”
Some homes still remain on Water Street across from the floodplain. Those residences flooded during this storm but less severely than in 2011, said Jeff Schultz, Northfield’s town manager.
“It's my understanding they got several feet of water in the basement with this storm versus Irene [when] it was clearly well up into the first floor,” Schultz said.
Precise comparisons are difficult. This month’s storm hit different areas of the state of Vermont, including communities that weren’t hit as hard by Tropical Storm Irene. Calais largely escaped Irene’s wrath, but a majority of the Washington County town’s roads were significantly damaged by this month’s storm.
Calais officials say that there were “several dozen culvert related road washouts” during this storm and that they’re still assessing what happened to the culverts that failed.
Some roads were washed out down to the bed rock, a mudslide took out a whole section of Moscow Woods Road, and a stream running off Bliss Pond overtook its banks and carved a 12-foot deep cavern near the intersection of Fowler Road and Old West Church Road, said Jamie Moorby, one of Calais’ acting road commissioners.
“One local driveway contractor was looking at it and took the measurements and roughly estimated it could be 500 truckloads of gravel just to fill that one washout,” Moorby said.
Even though it wasn’t hit hard by Irene, Moorby said over the last five to 10 years the town has been trying to update its flood infrastructure in anticipation of more frequent and severe storms.
The town increased the size of some culverts and dug deeper and longer ditches next to the road, but the ones that were not replaced caused problems this month, Moorby said.
“A lot of the places that did wash out culverts it was simply a matter of there wasn't enough culvert space for the volume of water,” Moorby said. “I think moving forward, we'll continue upsizing.”
Moorby expects the cost of the repairs in town to be substantial. The town brought some former road crew members out of retirement and hired several temporary contractors to get the local roads at least passable.
“We’re documenting everything very carefully and at this point,” Moorby said. “Just assuming that FEMA is going to come through and help pick up the pieces and help pick up the tab — because it's going to be very expensive.”
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Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources
- To apply for federal financial assistance, visit disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.
- Is your community under a boil-water notice? Find a statewide list here.
- For state road closure information, visit newengland511.org or @511VT on Twitter. To check the status of your town's local roads, consult your town website or social media.
- School activities and child care program closures are collected here.
- Find the latest forecasts and water levels for specific rivers from the National Weather Service.
- Are you returning to flooded property? Get tips on what to expect and how to stay safe while cleaning your home or car and how to deal with trash and debris.
- Here are tips for avoiding scams that can crop up after a disaster.
- Flood safety tips have been translated into 16 languages here.
- The Vermont Professionals of Color Network is connecting BIPOC Vermonters with recovery assistance.
- Business owners can find tips and resources from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.
- To find more resources, visit vermont.gov/flood, vermont211.org or call Vermont 2-1-1.
- You can also report flood damage to 2-1-1 to help the state gather data, according to Vermont Emergency Management. (If you are a homeowner, you should also contact your insurance company.)
- The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has provided a resource page for farmers.
- Find the latest guidance about how to help with recovery.