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Reflecting on Tropical Storm Irene following this month's historic floods

Heavy flooding washed out roads in Waitsfield, Vt., after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Sandy Macys
Heavy flooding washed out roads in Waitsfield, Vt., after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Heavy rains caused catastrophic flooding throughout the state. Despite the deluge, it appears much of the infrastructure in many Vermont towns — roads, culverts and bridges — fared OK.

Officials have attributed that positive performance, in part, to another disaster. After Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011, millions of dollars was poured into rebuilding the state’s infrastructure to be more resilient to future natural disasters.

Sue Minter is executive director at Capstone Community Action in Vermont. In 2011, she was the Tropical Storm Irene recovery officer.

Minter caught up with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch to talk about Tropical Storm Irene and Vermont infrastructure after this month's flooding. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Your role in 2011 was as Irene recovery officer. Can you explain what that was?

A woman with a neon safety vest and safety helmet poses for the camera with a worksite in the background.
David Goodman
Sue Minter

Sue Minter: This disaster in 2011 was the largest we had seen really since 1927. At that time, the governor appointed someone to be in the governor's office, organizing everything and coordinating throughout state government in all the communities that were responding so we would have a really integrated response at a very high level throughout the state.

And at that time of Tropical Storm Irene, you were the deputy secretary of transportation. That's the state's transportation infrastructure. Can you take us back to that year and describe Vermont's roadways at the time?

It was overwhelming. Overnight, the rain was just torrential. We truly lost significant numbers of roads. In fact, 600 miles of roads of the state's infrastructure was impaired. All of the state's main east-west corridors — our largest state roadway systems — were severed. There were 12 communities completely cut off. Commerce was dramatically impacted right at a time where families were trying to get their people to colleges and ending their vacation. It was an extraordinary and overwhelming impact to our basic infrastructure and movement on our road system.

Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency this past Sunday in advance of the latest storm. That made it so search and rescue teams could actually be at the ready. Take us back to Tropical Storm Irene where there were no teams at the ready — there was no command center. What is the difference between then and now? And what was your role in implementing these sorts of things?

In terms of our response, we are so much more prepared now. To be able to pre-position emergency responders is extraordinarily important and very different from 2011, where we had never been through something like this. Our Emergency Operations Center at that time was actually flooded out, which is why the Vermont Agency of Transportation, where I was in a leadership role, actually deployed three incident command centers throughout the state to immediately re-deploy 300 of our employees to be on the ground immediately taking action to restore our transportation system, which was critical for really our economic system to sustain. That's very different from today, where I think the state is more prepared, working together in an interagency system. Hopefully, we will do even better in the response and recovery than we did during Irene.

Let's touch a bit on how that infrastructure fared better in many places because of that resilient response that you just spoke of. What did Irene teach Vermont about how it builds and maintains bridges, culverts and riverbanks and things like that?

Well, I think the biggest lesson is that we must rebuild with climate change in mind. We designed our recovery with resilience. For example, we've worked so hard on the state system, and also the town's system to ensure that we didn't just replace culverts and bridges the way they had been before, but we built them at a larger span for bridges, larger volume for culverts. I think that has had a tremendous impact on the system where, after Irene we lost 200 bridges overnight. But as far as I've learned, so far, only two bridges along the state highway system have been impacted.

Well, I think the biggest lesson is that we must rebuild with climate change in mind.
Sue Minter

But it's more than just larger bridges and culverts. It's really understanding that nature will win and that we have to design our systems in concert with nature. Rather than the historic pattern of dredging and straightening our rivers, we're actually interested in allowing them to flood where they need to flood and to meander so that they slow down. So that we actually reduce the volume and velocity and destructive power of rivers. But most importantly, we also help get people out of harm's way. By that I mean having a buyout program where we helped over 150 Vermonters actually not return to the home they loved, but to help remove that home and turning it into floodplain and helping people relocate. That's probably the hardest lesson that many, many homeowners and communities are learning today. There are places where really we shouldn't build back.

You mentioned moving away from fossil fuels and creating more resilient infrastructure and designs and even changing roadways that have flooded more than once. I'm wondering what kinds of questions do we need to be asking from this disaster to prepare for the next one?

I think what I learned after Tropical Storm Irene is that you've got to think about taking advantage of this disruption to really make dramatic change. If folks who have lost their oil tanks can decide, "I'm not just going to get that tank out of my basement — I'm going to get a cold weather heat pump. I'm going to go electric." If we can work with our utilities and our Department of Public Service to help financially support and subsidize in some cases how people are building so that they are getting off of climate-inducing energy and into more green energy — that's the kind of larger scale change that's going to actually help us move forward. We have to really make lemonade out of these lemons.

I've seen that happen after Irene on so many fronts. If we innovate, if we think about the future, if we actually build for the future — we can do much better when this comes next time. If we're doing it with climate mitigation in mind, meaning we're actually reducing our reliance on fossil fuel and moving to more climate supportive infrastructure, we can be really faring better for all of us.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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