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The Dartmouth
April 18, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

July flooding is a ‘wake-up call’ to new weather realities in the Upper Valley

Local officials and organizations ramp up their emergency preparedness efforts after extreme weather in July.


This article is featured in the 2023 Freshman special issue.

The heavy flooding in the Upper Valley this July served as a “wake up call” regarding disaster preparedness for towns in Vermont and New Hampshire, Hanover Town Manager Alex Torpey said. In Hanover, the extreme weather revealed a “huge systemic problem” with the town’s existing climate emergency response infrastructure. 

Hanover will need to reevaluate infrastructure and land-use planning to accommodate floodplains, Torpey added.

“We have to get organized and mobilized,” Torpey said. “What is the plan for the next 30 years here? I don’t know if there is one … It’s hard not to feel a little intimidated by the amount of work that is required here.”

For Vermont towns including Quechee, Woodstock and Hartford, immediate recovery efforts after the July flooding involved rebuilding roads and widening culverts, according to Hartford Fire Department Chief Scott Cooney and Woodstock municipal manager Eric Duffy. Duffy — whose town lost access to fresh water for a week — said that the disaster response involved “emergency” work, or making the town livable again, and later “recovery” work, which involves rebuilding infrastructure such as culverts.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up five disaster recovery centers in Rutland, Washington and Windham counties, according to FEMA media relations specialist Briana Fenton. Their Disaster Survivor Assistance teams have been going door to door in Vermont, helping survivors apply for grants that can be used to rebuild homes, according to Fenton. 

“[FEMA] may be able to provide financial assistance to eligible survivors affected by the disaster, and it can help with necessary expenses and serious needs,” Fenton said. “FEMA will be here until the needs are met of the community. We’re here for the long haul.”

Andrew Winter, co-chair of Upper Valley Strong — a coalition of organizations focused on rebuilding efforts — said that policy changes at the federal level made the process of rebuilding “easier.” In the past, FEMA only reimbursed towns for the exact cost of the destroyed infrastructure, but now, they also pay for an upgrade to more durable options. 

Andrew Winter said that the storm prompted a larger conversation on every town in the Upper Valley's physical makeup. He suggested a government buyout program, under which the government would buy houses from residents at their market rate before the flood and transform the land into active floodplain, which would allow the river to flood without loss of life or property. 

“Those buyouts are going to be something that I think everybody’s going to be looking at across the state after this event,” Andrew Winter said. “There really is a recognition that we need to limit those kinds of events where you’re constantly rebuilding every five, 10 or 15 years.”

The storms, which began on July 10, are indicative of a larger increase in precipitation, according to associate geography professor Johnathan Winter. During the week of July 10 to July 16, there were eight inches of rain in Montpellier, Vermont, while areas nearby received between three and six inches, he said. 

The recent extreme weather is consistent with an increase in total precipitation, Jonathan Winter said. From 1996 to today, he reported that there was 50% more precipitation in the northeast than there was from 1901 to 1995. Towns in the Hanover area need to start thinking about “adaptation” and “mitigation” strategies to handle this new reality, he said. 

Adaptation might involve designing roads differently, building green infrastructure and moving people out of floodplains, while mitigation might focus on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to Johnathan Winter. He added that learning to deal with new weather conditions requires cooperation between researchers and individuals on a local and regional level.

“Now we know we have a certain amount of climate change already,” Johnathan Winter said. “There’s more support and a pivot in the scientific community to say, ‘okay, what are we going to do about this problem?’ …  I think working locally and regionally is the best way.” 

Earth sciences professor Erich Osterberg said that Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 caused a lot of towns to implement changes to “make them more resilient to storms.” He said he expects to see a similar process of rebuilding, with towns widening culverts and possibly implementing buyout programs for real estate on floodplains. 

However, the process of rebuilding after a flood can be dangerous to the ecosystem and nearby rivers, according to Jordan Fields GR’21, who is a Ph.D. student in earth science. Fields warned against a response similar to the aftermath of Irene in 2011 — which he called a “wild west of river restoration” that could have exacerbated the threat of flooding.

Fields said that Vermont later “corrected course” through a buyout program that allowed the river to flood in certain places. The program is effective because it accounts for new weather realities, he added.

“We can learn to live with the river,” Fields said. “I actually came away from this storm feeling, of course, the magnitude of the tragedy, but also feeling somewhat buoyed by the hope. Vermont has demonstrated that climate adaptation, although extensive, politically challenging … is possible. It’s really possible, and it works.”

Osterberg said it is “impossible to ignore what’s happening around the world” and called for Dartmouth to make sustainability a “core pillar” of the College’s educational mission. 

“[The climate crisis] is everywhere,” Osterberg said. “The ocean temperatures are insane. The loss of sea ice right now in Antarctica is insane. The fires in Canada are record setting. You pick a spot on the globe, and it’s a different story that all says the same thing. Climate change is already happening. We need to accelerate our efforts.” 

Johnathan Winter said he recently submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to receive funding to create a local group that would deal with adaptation and mitigation efforts in the Upper Valley. Although the project specifically looks at health impacts of degrading air quality and heat extremes, he could “imagine” a version that deals specifically with flooding. 

“You can envision a series of meetings where we invite town planners, people from the department of transportation: Engage community members to explain a little about our work,” he said. “We need to know what their problems are.”

Although Torpey said Hanover is “ahead of the game” in terms of general preparedness and response efforts for extreme weather, he called for “much more aggressive goals.” 

“All we can do on a local level is respond better when an event happens,” Torpey said. “There is a much broader conversation that we need local voices in.”