BRATTLEBORO — Newly released reports from the state are packed with ideas to help ensure individual communities and their businesses stay afloat during flooding.
"When you look at response and recovery, I know some people are tired of it and they want to move on. We think of this as making sure you're ready and prepared," said Noelle MacKay, Department of Housing and Community Development commissioner. "The good news is many things you do to make sure you're flood ready and you reduce floodwater runoff are the same things that protect water quality."
These reports were the result of the Vermont Economic Resiliency Initiative, known as VERI, which identified the state's top 32 communities where business and infrastructure are at a high risk of flooding. Besides Brattleboro, communities such as Barre, Brandon, Enosburg and Woodstock received analyses related to their rivers. "Road maps" containing recommendations to reduce, avoid or minimize flood risks were included, MacKay said, noting that many of the outlined goals meet multiple state and community goals.
In Brattleboro, officials are recommending the removal of sediment from a side of the Williams Street bridge. This would reduce threats or damage to the bridge, the report stated. Channel capacity would be increased while erosion would be reduced. Also, debris jams would be less likely.
"Williams Street provides important redundancy to the downtown transportation network in addition to access for the businesses and employees," the report said.
Also suggested was the conservation of eight acres of remaining undeveloped floodplain upstream of the downtown near Williams Street. A flood chute could be created to hold flood water, sediment and debris.
"Irene destroyed or damaged (downtown) roads and sidewalks, caused minor damages to eight buildings and major damages to three buildings, including four businesses that employed approximately 52 people," the report said. "Increasing the capacity of this undeveloped floodplain to store water could reduce flood elevations by four or five feet in the downtown. Further study of the benefits may reveal flood reduction downtown that may reduce the cost of flood insurance."
Alignment issues at the Route 9 bridge near Cumberland Farms in West Brattleboro were another concern.
"The Whetstone Brook flows through this bridge at an angle which causes erosion on the right abutment," the report said. "This alignment issue required the repair of the streambank after Tropical Storm Irene."
The report suggested the removal of "at-risk" sewer and water lines within the Whetstone Brook channel. Although sewer and water treatment facilities are out of flood prone areas, 8,445 feet of sewer pipe and 4,881 feet of water line are at risk in the floodway.
Buy-outs in areas of Tri-Park Mobile Home Park were recommended as the sites are vulnerable to severe flood damages due to their location.
"In Mountain Home alone, there are currently 93 homes in the 100-year floodplain," the report said, referring to an area in the park that would be inundated by a flood event with a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year. "Twenty (homes) of which are in the floodway (or area immediately adjacent to the river channel that needs to remain open to let floodwaters through). Many homes were washed away or damaged by Tropical Storm Irene and they remain in harm's way."
VERI was created in response to Irene, which devastated various parts of Vermont. A grant from the Economic Development Administration in 2012 saw the initiative get started during the following year. MacKay's department, responsible for creating the state's emergency plan and long-term economic development plans, sought input from local businesses, chambers of commerce and development corporations.
"We said we want to be thinking about how businesses remain open after a disaster," said MacKay. "(The communities) all had different areas at risk."
Enosburg raised issues about moving milk and agriculture to and from farms while Brattleboro worried more about downtown infrastructure and vulnerable populations. Each community was given a score for their flooding risk. The score involved how a flood could impact infrastructure and economic activity.
Communities identified for being the most at risk were considered for studies. Several communities were already underway with similar studies so they were not asked to participate.
"We tried to have a mix of downtown, smaller villages and agriculture," said MacKay. "We tried to have that mix of different communities."
She said every community in the state should be looking at how disaster intersects with economic activity. Some studies only talk about disaster, not the financial impact.
If bridges and roads are closed, MacKay said businesses and customers can't get places. She said communities need to be thinking about repairing infrastructure in ways that are sustainable during high water events.
"We're really looking at the economics of it and really, over time, decreasing what communities are spending on this," she added.
The "road maps" are meant to be used when looking at making changes over the next five years. They include making updates to hazard mitigation or town plans and bylaws. Then there were specific projects where MacKay's department can help find federal, state or local funding.
The department was looking for communities that would implement some of the recommendations, MacKay said.
"I promised I'd reach out to sister organizations to look at funding," she said. "Folks are interested in funding. They like the specificity in the report."
MacKay said her department "absolutely" plans to follow up on the communities where recommendations were made. She was visiting Barre soon to discuss three or four projects which are candidates for moving forward. There, a recommendation involved the buy-out of 30 properties and MacKay said they likely would start with three or four.
"We'll be following and tracking to see after it's done what happens after the next storm, the cost of clean-up or return on investment," she said.
Brattleboro's report can be found at accd.vermont.gov/sites/accd/files/Documents/strongcommunities/cpr/VERI_Brattleboro_Community_Report.pdf.