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Reflections on Irene, four years later

This blog by Debra Perry is cross-posted from Resilient Vermont.


It’s a beautiful day in Vermont, blue skies and just a few puffy clouds. A far cry from the steady downpour of August 28, 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene made its way up the eastern seaboard and angled northwest through Vermont. The storm sent relentless rain into rivers and streams, and when the flooding came, it was violent and devastating.


And now, four years away from the shock of the disaster and the patient, steady effort of cleanup and recovery, distanced by time and experience from the urgency, it’s time to reflect a little. What do we know now that we did not know then? And what do we still have to learn?


We know more about risk. Vermont’s climate risks have been researched and publicized since Irene, and the state’s climate assessment and other reports make it clear that heavy rain and consequent flooding are at the top of the list. We’re digging into economic risk, understanding what happens when major events such as Irene put whole regions out of commission.


We know more about collaboration. The collaboration after Irene was one of our biggest strengths, as elected officials, government and nonprofit staff at the state and local level found new and creative ways to work together. Strong relationships at the local level made positive partnerships possible.


We know more about our infrastructure – where we are weak and strong, and where our investments should be directed to reduce future loss and damage. We have a better understanding of the costs involved in doing nothing, versus the price of building back stronger.


We know more about what local leaders need to succeed when a crisis hits. There was tremendous organic on-the-ground leadership throughout the state after Irene, but there is no question that community leaders continue to need and benefit from a better understanding of emergency management and preparedness, as well as vulnerable populations, areas and infrastructure.


Last week, we released the Resilient Vermont Progress Report, which succinctly details the recommendations that were documented in Vermont’s Roadmap to Resilience and where we stand on implementing those recommendations. There is good news in the progress report, positive advancement on many fronts. But it’s clear as well that we still have work to do to increase our resilience (and we’ll never be done). Here at ISC, our Resilient Vermont team is now focusing on supporting the new Resilient Vermont Network, comprised of local leaders committed to collective action.


As Irene fades into memory for many, it’s important to keep the lessons and the knowledge in front of us, and to make decisions based on that knowledge. If we know and understand risk, we must change the way we make investments, re-think the way we develop in flood-prone areas, and learn to leverage the collaboration that characterized Vermont’s Irene response. It is Vermont’s leaders at every level who will need to work together to make these changes, and her citizens who will have to champion and support new ideas.


Vermont’s experience of Irene was a demonstration of what’s possible – what nature can do, and what people can accomplish. Now it’s time to make lessons learned in those challenging days a part of our business-as-usual.