It was the last weekend of August 2011 and southern Vermont was shifting into back-to-school, back-to-work routines. Frequent rains had already saturated the soil; rivers and streams were running fast and high.
Residents and visitors were tracking Hurricane Irene, reduced to the lowest category 1 as it approached the Northeast coast. Forecasters predicted heavy rain, flooding and high winds inland. Emergency preparations were widespread in western New England.
Nevertheless, Irene threw a surprise curve ball, shifting to the west, hitting land at New York City and then passing over the western edge of New England, over the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and right through Vermont.
Downgraded to a tropical storm, it still packed a punch — dumping torrents on Aug. 27 and 28, saving its knockout blows for much of the Green Mountain State.
In Vermont, the total damage estimate was $733 million, with Chittenden, Rutland, Washington and Windsor counties designated as federal disaster areas.
'A lot worse'
At the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y., Warning Coordination Meteorologist Stephen DiRienzo was on duty. Looking back recently, he acknowledged that weather scientists missed the boat.
"Our forecast worked out not so well," he said. "While we were expecting a lot of rain and we were worried about flooding, I don't think any of us really knew what was going to happen."
"It turned out a lot worse than anybody thought," DiRienzo conceded.
Atmospheric scientist Joe Kravitz, based at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass., recalled that "all the hype was along the coast, that it was going to make landfall as a hurricane and that a storm surge would hit New York City. But people in Vermont thought, 'OK, I'm good, I live in Vermont.'"
Kravitz also believes that forecasters failed to emphasize soil saturation so that "instead of soaking into the ground, the rain ran off directly into the streams, and all the streams in Vermont overflowed their banks immediately. People didn't picture the covered bridges being washed away, it was a catastrophe."
"The flood warnings for ... Vermont were underplayed," he maintained. "But I don't think even the National Weather Service anticipated how extreme it was going to be, how quickly the rivers were going to rise."
By the time the storm curved northeast over New Hampshire and Maine, much of Vermont had been drenched by up to 10 inches of rain.
Irene, born east of the Lesser Antilles islands in the Caribbean Sea, was blamed for 48 deaths — six of them in Vermont, including one in the town of Wilmington — and total U.S. damage of $15.6 billion from the seventh costliest hurricane in U.S. history, according to the National Hurricane Center.
In Vermont, Irene damaged more than 3,500 homes, 500 miles of roads and more than 200 bridges, isolating 13 towns and putting many local communities under severe fiscal crisis, according to Gov. Peter Shumlin. It was the worst natural disaster in the state since a devastating flood in November 1927.
Now, there's agreement that lessons have been learned.
"Big storms have multiple hazards, and we need to try to pinpoint which ones are most important so we can rank them in order of priority," said DiRienzo, the National Weather Service meteorologist who has researched past storms to help improve forecasting.
It's all about better communication, he emphasized, since "if nobody understands the forecast, it doesn't help."
Kravitz pointed out that the National Weather Service set up a commission "to look at what they could have done to present warnings to the public so people could have been better prepared. There were a lot of warnings for inland areas, but it was not communicated well to the public that flooding was going to be a big deal."
The government commission's report asserted that "the public and media did not fully recognize the devastating flood threat that land-falling tropical cyclones pose for inland areas of New England. When there is high confidence of a historic flood event, the NWS should use all available tools and imperative language to convey the urgency and to ensure the message is timely, clear, and understood by the media and decision-makers."