Research in Rutland County to Improve Local and National Flood Warning Communication

By Sarah Noyes, Flood Resilience Educator
May 16, 2024

As any long-time Vermonter will tell you, extreme rain events and flooding in the Lake Champlain basin are more frequent and they’re expected to accelerate in the coming years. The combination of climate change and human development leads to dangerous and damaging storm consequences that basin residents are not prepared for. Our waterways cannot absorb and slow excess water the way they naturally do because many of our rivers have been straightened and disconnected from their natural floodplains to accommodate development. Without access to floodplains, our rivers flow fast with destructive force. As we experienced during the July 2023 storms, fast-flowing rivers can devastate communities and infrastructure. For the safety of residents living and working in flood prone areas in the Lake Champlain basin and across the country, accurate and up to date flood forecast information is essential.  

As part of the Cooperative Institute for Research to Operations in Hydrology (CIROH), Lake Champlain Sea Grant is working with researchers at The University of Vermont and Research Triangle International to learn more about how flood forecast information is received and shared in communities. Learning from this study aims to improve the usability of NOAA’s flood forecasting tools on regional and national scales – helping those in flood-prone areas take effective action during flood events.  

Rutland County, Vermont, located in the Lake Champlain basin, was chosen as one of six study locations nationwide. Within Rutland County, the team focused on Rutland City and Rutland Town situated in the Otter Creek watershed. These communities have experienced frequent flood damage, most significantly from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and the summer floods of 2023. Rutland County was chosen in part because Lake Champlain Sea Grant has previously engaged with these communities, working closely with Rutland Regional Planning Commission to coordinate flood resilience presentations for the Rutland Town planning commission.  

The research team invited Rutland City and Rutland Town local authorities, health and human service organizations and community stakeholders to participate in focus groups with the goal of learning how flood information moves to and from organizations within the community. A preliminary finding of these focus groups is that emails, phone applications, alerts, social media and word-of-mouth are the main channels being used in pre-warning messages across audience segments. In addition, the team is learning that whether an organization chooses to share the flood information they receive may be impacted by their level of perceived responsibility to do so. 

Insights from focus group participants on flood communication help us to understand what gaps or barriers may exist in flood information flow. These findings will have local and nationwide impacts as they help to inform the content of a nationwide flood information survey and community-specific recommendations for Rutland City and Rutland Town.