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Vermont & Irene: Learning to Bounce Forward

Three years ago today the rains came to Vermont, in a climate-change-fueled downpour that brought devastation to much of this small state. Mountainside brooks became torrents, destroying roads and bridges; in the valleys the rivers rose and inundated houses and businesses and whole downtowns. In our mountain-dominated state, where humans have long been settled besides the rivers and lakes, we learned that flooding is our biggest climate threat.


Vermonters learned hard lessons. Lives were lost, homes, businesses and livelihoods destroyed. Individual communities grappled with rebuilding their infrastructure and economies, while the state faced hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, and the complex process of working with FEMA. Vulnerable populations were hit hardest, as we’ve seen in so many disasters around the world.


But “the indomitable people,” as Calvin Coolidge described Vermonters when he visited after the 1927 Flood, were up to the task of responding to and recovering from this disaster. Elected officials and business owners, government and nonprofit staff, religious leaders and local volunteers, Vermonters worked collectively to respond to immediate needs and rebuild for the future. This small, tightly-knit state demonstrated the effectiveness and power of social capital in community resilience.


Resilience is no longer an abstract concept to many Vermonters, nor to others across the globe. We’re working with a broad network of Vermont community leaders on the Resilient Vermont project, identifying opportunities to build resilience and strengthen collaboration. Vermont’s Governor and his climate team are part of the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, bringing the lessons learned in Vermont into a national conversation. ISC has worked with many of the communities represented on the Task Force, and they each bring their own local perspective, shaped by hard-won experience. This sharing of experience is essential – we can’t wait for every community to face disaster before we comprehend the need for change.


Three years later, Vermont looks much as it did before Irene. But we know that so much is different. Thousands of local leaders have learned skills and lessons they will never forget, and they know now that the need for climate adaptation is concrete and real. Citizens have seen the power they have to connect with each other, not just to rebuild but to rethink their vision for community. We’re looking with new eyes at risks and opportunities, planning for the future with a changed perspective.


Climate disruption means that there will be many Irenes, and many Vermonts. Coastal communities, desert regions, mountainous valleys – terrain shapes the climate threats we face. But our own willingness to learn, connect and adapt is what determines our ability to bounce forward.