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Documentary Explores Rivers Post-Irene

Nancy Eve Cohen
Roaring Branch of the Walloomsac River in Woodford, Vt.

A new video documentary about Tropical Storm Irene focuses on how rivers work and what can be done to reduce floods in the future.   

The film “After the Flood” opens with dramatic footage of floodwaters lashing the landscape on August 28 2011.

Sue Minter, who was the state’s Irene Recovery Officer, explains in the film what happened that day in the state’s hilly terrain.

“The rain that was falling added to what was coming down these valleys,” said Minter,  “became torrents of river that literally took over everything in its wake.”

But the film doesn’t focus on the heartache and loss of that day. Filmmaker Joe DeFelicesaid it’s about looking ahead

“When the event happened a lot of people felt helpless and rightfully so,” said DeFelice. “But going forward there are things they could do to alleviate tragedies in the future, become more actively engaged in decisions for their own towns.”

To that end the film is instructive, explaining that straightening and armoring rivers increases the velocity of water. And digging gravel out of riverbeds destroys fish habitat. As Kim Greenwood of the Vermont Natural Resources Council said in the film, all that interference makes a river system unravel.

“It’s not intuitive. You think you can contain the river, if you dig deep you can control it,” said Greenwood. “But the reality is we have never, ever won that battle in the long-run. We have lost every single time.”

The film makes the point that rivers are naturally messy and asymmetrical, meandering this way and that, plunging to create pools for swimming fish and shallow areas for spawning. Joe DeFelice, the fundraiser, editor, sound recordist and photographer clambered over river banks to find the right shot.

“I kind of scale mountains to get perspectives and hiking around through the woods,” explained DeFelice. “Trying to look around and find these evidences of rivers that have become changed and altered because of the floods.”

DeFelice recalled one of the most illuminating moments for him was when he was shooting from an airplane and could see how a wetland between Rutland and Middlebury helped alleviate flooding during Irene.

“Seeing the scale of that and understanding it from a visual perspective: the expanse of where the water went to,” said DeFelice. “It really drove home how that whole system works of a wetlands helping retain some flooding waters. It was just, it was an eye opener.”

DeFelice said he was struck by how Vermonters are trying to learn more about rivers, including a group he filmed in Wilmington, a town hard-hit by Irene.

“They were all talking and all engaged and pointing at the river and really understanding the topics,” said DeFelice. “That’s the kind of engagement that you hope people have about these issues when they’re really talking with their neighbors and coming up with solutions and learning about the subject in-depth versus letting someone else take care of it for them.”

DeFelice is showing the film mostly in small venues to encourage that kind of community dialogue.

The next screening is next week in the West Townshend Country Store.

You can watch "After the Flood" here.

Nancy Cohen covers southern Vermont's recovery from Tropical Storm Irene. Her work is supported by the VPR Journalism Fund.
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