University of Vermont

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

CALS' Science Informs Flood Victims

UVM Assists in Many Ways

Crops at peak production were destroyed by flooding state wide on August 28.


When tropical storm Irene raked through Vermont on August 28, 2011, from the southeastern border of Brattleboro to the northern tip of Lake Champlain reaching into Canada, leaving a wake of destruction and flooding, the University of Vermont community sprung into action. UVMers offered everything from hands-on volunteer help via work parties in farm fields and donated cash, to the complicated science that informs flood victims on how to proceed.
And likely UVM researchers will be collecting data and studying the effects of the flood across all disciplines for many years to come.
Quantifying Damage
 By mid September ongoing assessments from the governor's office projected reconstruction to exceed $1 billion. In 40 towns, nearly 700 homes in were destroyed or damaged according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is still assessing the impact. Five died in flood-related accidents. One is still missing. Countless highways, bridges, power sources and water systems were destroyed.
Likewise, Vermont agriculture suffered. A September 22 Rutland Herald article used state and federal data to conclude that nearly 15,000 acres of state farmland were damaged, though the number is expected to rise. Robert Paquin, Vermont director of the federal Farm Service Agency (and an advisor to UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) expects that the number of farms damaged will exceed 400. Paquin told the newspaper that reported damage includes 5,200 acres of corn, 4,720 acres of hay, 135 acres of soybeans, 430 acres of fruits and vegetables and more than 4,400 acres of damaged farmland estimated at $3 million.
Earlier Vermont Public Radio reports, said that in Washington and Chittenden Counties alone, 75 producers reported damage, millions of dollars of fruits, vegetables and corn lost and 200 acres of soybeans flooded. Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, a UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) advisory board member, stresses that damage is still being tallied. But, he says, "comparisons don't count if you're the one who suffered the loss; it's devastating."
Contributing to Solutions
Among the many resources and expertise from UVM, here are a few recent contributions from members of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences:
  • Bob Parsons, Extension economist at UVM CALS, became the go-to guy when it comes to quantifying farmer's losses due to tropical storm Irene flooding state wide. Here's his contribution to the story in the Rutland Herald's Vermont Today September 6, 2011. CALS own David Heleba (UVM Greenhouses staff) is in the photo.
    Here's the WCAX version of the story.
    Parsons noted that "a lot of the damage could be spotty – significant losses depend on not just on where the storm traveled, but so many specifics of individual farms from its site to its products and methods." Vermont's most important crops: corn, hay and even soybeans were under water for days in many parts of the Green Mountain State. And when it comes to Vermont's signature dairy farms it's complicated. As Parsons pointed out, "besides the obvious wind and flood damage to barns and equipment and potential loss of topsoil, we have the whole logistics of farms. Key was whether the farms had 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," Parsons said.
  • That's where Don Ross comes in. Ross is research associate professor of plant and soil science and director of UVM Agricultural and Environmental Testing Lab in Jeffords Hall. Ross and lab analyst Joel Tilley have been conducting free soil tests for commercial Vermont farms whose fields are damaged by flooding, with results available in a matter of days. "Besides the basic nutrient test, we're screening all the samples for heavy metals," says Tilley. "Of 60+ samples checked so far, none have shown any metal contamination," he adds. Meanwhile, they've also fielded a flood of media questions and tours including from the Burlington Free Press, WCAX and New England Cable News.
  • Kelly Hamshaw and Carrie Williams turned on a dime to quickly offer a new course on rebuilding Vermont post flooding (in CALS' community development and applied economics department) Their expertise even received a shout out in Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin's blog.
  • Heather Darby, agronomist in CALS plant and soil science department and Extension, is working closely with Vermont farmers on crop-related issues as this UVM story attests.
  • Bill Morris, plant and soil science Ph.D. candidate created a "crowd map" gathering Irene-related resources. The crowd map is based on a program called Ushahidi that was developed in 2008 during post-election violence in Kenya. It centralized and mapped real-time text messages a so people were able to see what was happening where. Since then, it's been used in the Haiti and Japan earthquakes, Morris explained it to UVM communications: "The beauty of a Ushahidi deployment is that in can pull in any sort of information that's available." 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.


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