Are we ready for another Irene?
BRATTLEBORO -- On the second anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, Vermonters across the state are recognizing the work that has been done to recover from the disaster.
While projects still need to be completed -- and for some families life may never return to normal -- for the most part bridges and roads have been rebuilt, businesses are open and the communities that were most affected are recovering.
Still, planners, engineers and lawmakers say it is going to take a while to see if the lessons learned in the days following Aug. 28, 2011 are going to make a difference the next time a major storm hits the area.
Tropical Storm Irene dropped more than 10 inches of rain over parts of Vermont, and southeastern Vermont was hit particularly hard with the towns of Brattleboro, Wilmington, Newfane, Jamaica, Halifax and Marlboro suffering millions of dollars of damage to personal and municipal property.
Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany said while the storm was a wake-up call to every municipal official in the region, he is yet to see much impact to zoning and planning regulations that could mitigate future damage in the event of another flood.
"From a regulation standpoint there has been very little in way of change," Campany said. "We have not seen a lot of focus on the town plans we have been working on since Irene. At some towns are going to have to address this."
Campany says he is not surprised that the hardest hit towns have yet to institute change in their zoning or planning regulations and road standards to try to prepare for future flooding.
Most of those towns, he said, are still rebuilding their infrastructure and trying to figure out just how much FEMA is going to be able to pay for the recovery.
Towns should be looking forward, Campany said, and when it is time to re-write a town plan, Campany said he hopes there is consideration given toward more aggressive planning within areas that are prone to flooding.
"For a lot of towns, Irene is far from being a distant memory. They are still dealing with this on a day-to-day basis," Campany said. "My hope is that towns have more of an appetite to take this on after they are distanced a little from it."
But Campany said it is not going to be easy for planning commissions, zoning administrators and the public to get behind strong regulations that limit what property owners can do on the land.
Private land rights are respected in Vermont, and even when it might benefit the land owner, and the people up or down stream, Campany said towns generally tread lightly when beefing up land use regulations.
"Every town should look at its history to look at what can happen and what can be done to prevent future damage, and what can be done to recover more quickly," Campany said. "Addressing the issues should not really require any heavy lifting but what is more challenging are the politics of addressing those risks. It is difficult to discuss what people can and can not do on their own property."
According to Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, there were lessons learned in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene that should influence how the state responds the next time a storm pounds the region.
Vermont was recognized across the country for how quickly and efficiently it was able to rebuild, but Deen said mistakes were made by some road crews who brought heavy machinery down into the rivers and streams to remove gravel, silt and debris.
Lawmakers got right to work following the storm and Deen, who is chairman of the House Fish & Wildlife Committee, helped pass Act 138 which addresses water quality issues.
Deen said the law made it easier for municipalities to come into compliance with the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program and the legislation sets new standards for the activities that can take place in a stream following an emergency.
The law also empowers the Agency of Natural Resources to give more support to local municipalities as the try to enact stronger zoning bylaws to control development near areas that are likely to flood.
The law will take full effect in July 2014.
"One thing that happened after Irene was that the governor suspended all permits for stream activity because there was no plan ‘B,'" Deen said. "What we said in this law is that you have to play by the rules. When this new rule is adopted there will be ground rules for the work that can be done."
Deen said the new law allows local Selectboard members to authorize work in the event of emergencies, but even then, he said ANR officials will make sure any stream work does not further jeopardize local communities, or people living down stream.
In the long term, Deen said, the state is putting resources into training machine operators so they know the best practices when they do have to bring an excavator into a stream, during an emergency or otherwise.
Deen knows there is an uneasy tension between what municipalities learned during Irene and just how far officials want to go in limiting development rights.
There were floods before Irene, and there likely will be others in the future.
Everyone should be concerned with limiting the damage to property and lives and protecting the environment, Deen said.
"What rivers do in high water is not a mystery and in areas where we have a choice to make I hope we will make the right choice and not do more damage to our infrastructure or property," Deen said. "Irene opened our eyes and it also opened a window that allowed us to say ‘This is how you avoid damage and this is how you should react during a high water event.' You can be more prepared and you can survive a flood. It's going to happen again. Hopefully because of Irene people will be more willing to listen next time."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.
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