University of Vermont

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Viewpoint: Irene

UVM Researchers Ponder, How Did This Happen? What Next?

Flooding in East Pittsford, Vermont on Aug. 31, 2011 after Tropical Storm Irene.

In the days following Irene's catastrophic flooding in the state, Vermonters, shocked by the severity of the damage, are wondering, "How did this happen?" and "What's next?" To help answer those questions, UVM Today spoke with researchers around the university. Read on to learn more from experts in climatology, watershed science, and sociology, among other fields -- and hear what roles some in our community have played already in documenting the disaster and aiding relief.

William "Breck" Bowden, Patrick Professor of Watershed Science & Planning and director of the Vermont Water Resources and Lake Studies Center

UVM Today: What accounted for the extreme flooding seen in some parts of Vermont?

Bowden: What we had was kind of a conspiracy of three conditions. Factor one was that there were several occasions during the month of August when it rained pretty hard.  That meant the soils were already wet and their capacity to take up more water was extremely limited. The rainfall, while it didn’t always have the intensity of a summer thunder shower, lasted for 12 to 18 hours and virtually blanketed New England in a massive storm, so that was factor two. And then factor three is Vermont’s topography.  So now we’ve got wet soil with a lot of water sitting on top of it, and for a long period of time, and no place for that water to go but downhill.  And it accumulates in small rivulets and then bigger streams and then finally hits rivers like the Winooski.  And you’ve basically got a bulldozer that just runs rampant through the valley bottoms.

What kinds of areas were hardest hit?

Most of the damage is associated with places that are along rivers that had fairly large contributing areas. It’s not really the rainfall where you’re standing that counts. It’s the rainfall upstream of you.

A lot of us were hypnotized by YouTube videos of water rushing down swollen Vermont rivers. Any way to put the force of that flow in context?

Here’s a thought I had while talking with a reporter this afternoon. A Ford F-150 pickup weighs about 7,000 pounds, which is equivalent to the weight of 112 cubic feet of water. At the peak of discharge at the Winooski River dam in Essex, the river’s flow was just under 40,000 cubic feet per second. That’s the equivalent of 357 F-150s per second.  It’s no wonder that river banks and bottoms erode under this onslaught of moving mass. Water, of course, is more pliable than Ford pick-ups. But mass is mass, and momentum is momentum.  Rivers in motion can do a lot of work -- and create a lot of destruction.

Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne, geospatial analyst, Spacial Analysis Laboratory

While the Spacial Analysis Lab at UVM is not normally part of disaster work, that changed during Irene. How did that come about?

O'Neil-Dunne: When the Vermont GIS (Geographic Information System) Office in Waterbury and the Emergency Operations Center were flooded, there was a gap in terms of the distribution of data, especially to the federal agencies that needed to do mapping within the state to plan for support. So one of the things we did very early on was to fortunately maintain an archive of the state's GIS data holding, so these are all the layers that will go into a map -- anything from steams and roads to the location, in the case of Vermont, of every single resident. I have that in a database. So we were able to post that data online -- it's all publicly available anyway -- and that's been downloaded by federal agencies, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), who are working on this.

Disaster relief work is very different from what we typically do in the Spatial Analysis Lab from an end use perspective, but in terms of the data that we're working with and the techniques that we're using, this is all very standard for us.

How else have you contributed?

We started filling in on the conference calls with both USGS (United States Geological Survey) and FEMA. What they need in these disaster response situations is to know what areas they should prioritize for satellite imagery acquisition. So we've been getting information from people throughout the state -- because we're in contact with the other GIS folks through a listserv -- about where the hardest hit areas are. We're also looking at the media reports and crowd-sourced reports online. 

A third thing we've been doing is taking some of the satellite imagery that's been coming in, which is mostly limited to the Connecticut River right now, and then we're mapping what flooding we can document from that. This morning, I've still been helping to coordinate data access for people who need it. You have FEMA people both working out of state and coming in state who need access to some of the state imagery and GIS resources. I'm making sure they have access to it so they can do their planning. And this, of course, is important if they're not as familiar with the state. When the satellite imagery comes in, often times it's not in a form that's usable for people who need it, so we're processing that.

Bob Parsons, Extension agricultural economist in UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

What are some of the challenges farms will be facing?

Parsons: Besides the obvious wind and flood damage to barns and equipment and potential loss of topsoil, we have the whole logistics of farms. Key are whether the farms have electricity and whether their lanes and county roads are passable. And not all farms have generators necessary for milking, bulk tank cooling and pumping water. Roads are crucial to transporting milk, feed, fuel and services such as veterinary.

We can recuperate from crop losses if we have a week of warm, dry weather, a lot of problems will take care of themselves. But farms that can't get feed, fuel and milk to market may be in trouble.

Some of Vermont's most important crops -- corn, hay and even soybeans -- are still under water in many parts of the Green Mountain State. How will these crops fare?

It just depends on how long they're submerged, whether a lot of silt or stone is imbedded in the fields. We have to wait until the water recedes to assess crop damage or speculate on the long-term outcome.

Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux,  associate professor of geography and Vermont state climatologist

How does Irene fit into the history of hurricanes or tropical storms affecting Vermont?

Dupigny-Giroux: One of the things that struck me looking at the whole system evolve was the way in which it oriented toward the Hudson Valley all the way up into the Champlain Valley. Whenever you have a system that is running along two different mountain barriers, that helps steer it in such a way that allows the precipitation to fall in the same area for an extended period of time. This was so similar to what happened in 1927 when the hurricane moved up along the Connecticut Valley, moved along a frontal boundary and sort of sat there. The topography of the state -- and in this case the Appalachians which come up from the Carolinas and into New England dividing into the Green and White Mountains -- lies north-northeast to south-southwest and that has a big influence on how storm systems move through. Then factor in the state’s complex hills and ridges which cause air to rise, enhancing precipitation. There was a lot of this orographic enhancement going on as well. So when you take that basically north-south orientation on a really large storm -- it was anywhere between 300 and 400 miles wide -- that had so much moisture in it and all of that moisture enhanced by the topography then unfortunately you had large rainfall amounts, the 8 and 12 inches that we saw across different parts of the state. 

From the 1900s to about 1950 or so there were more hurricanes that moved north-south and affected the northern parts of New England. And then in the second half of the 20th century they were oriented more east-west and affected New York and Massachusetts and Connecticut because they went up along the eastern part of the U.S. and turned before they even got to us. Hurricanes go through cycles and patterns, some years are more active and some are more quiet. We got into a really active pattern that started in 1990s, and we’ve been in that active pattern since then. 

Can you extrapolate from this what we might expect? Does Irene say anything about the storm they’re watching in the Atlantic now?

Not necessarily. Hurricanes usually go towards the Caribbean and then curve around by Florida and go off northwards towards England. That’s because there’s a high-pressure system that usually sits in the middle of the Atlantic, and it’s kind of like a boulder: you can’t go through it usually. So the strength of that system is going to be critical and that changes over the course of the year. The other thing is the wind-flow pattern over North America. Sometimes it is so far to the east that it pushes the hurricanes offshore before they even make landfall. If that shifts westwards then there’s more of a chance for the hurricane to get steered towards us. Another really big wild card is what’s going on in the oceans. You know you need ocean water at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit for hurricanes to form. What’s going on in the Pacific is also critical. Right now they are forecasting that we are going to go back into a La Niña pattern, which is conducive to having hurricanes in the Atlantic. So if over the next two or three months La Niña continues to develop that’s not going to spell good news for Atlantic hurricanes.

Alice Fothergill, associate professor of sociology.

You’ve traveled to study flooding in Grand Forks, North Dakota and to New Orleans. This disaster more or less came to you. How do you see this storm affecting the people of Vermont?

Fothergill: I spent all day talking to my students about Irene, asking how many were from towns that were affected and half the hands went up. It’s a lot of our students.

We are a very rural state and we have these very small towns and I think one of the things that stands out in this disaster and may be similar in many ways to 1927 is these towns that are cut off, the isolation of these towns is really something that’s significant and that we have to pay attention to. It’s remarkable that there are around 12 towns that are completely cut off where they have to airlift in help. It seems like a traumatizing circumstance in that you don’t have any control, you can’t get out. These places are going to be great examples of what we’ve always known in disasters: the real first responders to the needs of survivors are other survivors. Communities are relying on each other, neighbors, friends.

But it affected the whole state which is interesting. When one community is affected or one part of a town is affected and the other half is functioning they can do so much. In Cavandish or Granville or Hancock, when the devastation is so great it’s harder to recover because they’ve all been taken out. 

I was thinking about kids, because I study kids and disaster, how disruptive this is for their routines and their sense of security. They were talking about schools being closed, how long is this going to take? These periods of time are long for adults but they’re longer for kids. And I wonder (having seen it in Louisiana studying affects of Katrina) are families separated, will displacement mean that children don’t see family or friends or go to the same school? I can’t tell from the news reports but my guess is that many people aren’t going to be able to return to their homes for long periods of time. It’s a really historic event. I do see we’re getting help and that FEMA included diapers and baby formula -- it’s good, they know what people need -- when you run out of diapers you need diapers. They are thinking about families’ needs. It’s very difficult for families though. There will be displacement, loss of jobs and of course I worry about issues of family violence. 

I think the evidence is already here – people will help each other, we’ll see a lot of volunteerism, but we’ll see a lot of family stress and we’ll see a lot of farms and businesses go under. For survivors, it’s months of paperwork and bureaucracy and insurance and deductibles. Disaster recovery is a difficult, long process and it’s a real strain. And the loss of infrastructure, particularly historic bridges. For the people, it’s who they are as a town, such a historic structure is an enormous loss for communities, it ties them to past generations. It’s a huge loss. I guess I worry.

Note: Read more about Fothergill's work in this week's Inside Higher Ed article, "Sociology in the Storms."

Thomas G. Noordewier, associate professor of business

How significantly do you expect the damage from Hurricane Irene to affect tourism in Vermont?

Noordewier: It’s hard to predict, but I don’t really expect a significant fall off as a result of the hurricane. In fact, these things can sometimes have a peculiar reverse effect. All of a sudden Vermont has been in the national news with all of its mountains and small country roads, and people want to know more. So to a certain extent something like this can actually put you on the radar screen in a peculiar kind of way. As long as people think that the infrastructure has had time to recover and we communicate that it has, it’s not clear that this will have a real negative affect at all. Tourism activity is close to a quarter of state employment and probably 15-20 percent of gross state product. My personal view is that the state is going to get the roads back in shape pretty quickly, and I think we’re going to make all of these destinations accessible, and so as long as that message gets out that Vermont is open for business I’m pretty positive about the future.

What are the most important steps that business owners and local and state governments can take to avoid a drop-off in visitors?

There are some tourism recovery articles in the hospitality and management area that deal with what to do after a disaster that basically say that there’s a critical information flow that has to go out to potential visitors to keep them updated and let them know that, “Hey, we’re open and ready for business.” The leadership at the state and municipal levels really need to get the word out as soon as possible when they are back up and running. In addition to the state making it clear that we haven’t shut down and that things are going to recover rapidly, travel agents and other people in the travel business should get information out about the extent of the recovery. It takes a lot work on the marketing side to overcome even a couple of days of massive news by the major networks describing how Vermont has washed away.

Bill Morris, Ph.D. candidate in plant and soil science

You've created a crowd-sourced map of Irene-related information around the state. Tell us more about that.

Morris: The crowd map is based on a program called Ushahidi. You may have heard of it before. In 2008, there was a lot of post-election violence in Kenya, and they didn't have a way of centralizing and coordinating on a map, as well as in general, what information there was. This program allowed people to send text messages to a central program and then that information would pop up on a map, so people were able to see what information was happening where in real time. Since then, it's been used in the Haiti earthquake, in Japan, and it's just a really easy way to get public information out and also consume that information in a geographical way.

The beauty of a Ushahidi deployment is that in can pull in any sort of information that's available, so if other people have set up maps, it can pull that in. (For example, Morris is configuring it to display data from this crowd-sourced map created by Seven Days). It's actually pulling in every tweet with the hashtag #VTIrene #VTFloods or #VTResponse. It's just a good central clearinghouse.

There are many, many places to go to find out information about a town or where their friends and relatives might be, but there's not really a way to see it spacially, except for this. So, if you want to receive alerts about anything within a 20 mile radius of you, this can be set up to do that. So, it's basically just geo-locating as much of this location as possible.

Can you talk about the importance of that?

Ultimately, in the mode of crisis response that we're still in now, this is helpful both to people who need information about their neighbors and also to first responders. But moving forward, it's going to be essential to documenting the extent of the damage. In circumstances like this, it's essential to emergency management officials to have good records of where the high water marks were. And as it stands, we're getting geo-located photos all over the state of that sort of thing, and they will hopefully keep rolling in.

What compelled you to create this resource?

It's just something I can do. There are a lot of people out there who are in range and have a shovel and can start digging, but this is something I know how to do, and I'd like to be useful.

 

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