Morning Read: Was the response to tropical storm Irene misguided?

The Burlington Free Press has published a provocative article about the science of and the response to tropical storm Irene that should be required reading for community leaders on both sides of Lake Champlain.

Two key takeaways caught my eye.  The first was the idea that storm-events approaching this magnitude could be far more common than we like to think.  This from Candace Page’s article:

“Irene was the third catastrophic flood to devastate the southern half of Vermont in the 38 years since 1973, a frequency of once every 13 years,” Mike Kline, head of the state’s river management program, told the audience.

Global warming raises the likelihood of extreme weather events — warmer air, for example, can hold more moisture — added Pat Parenteau, a former Vermont commissioner of environmental conservation and a professor at the law school.

“Was Irene the storm of the century?” he asked. “More likely the storm of the decade.”

The second argument laid out here is that much of the “river management” response to Irene has been misguided, not because dredging and straightening rivers is environmentally questionable, but because it could make rivers less safe.

“Dig it out, make it fast and straight and deep, and we’ll be fine,” Kari Dolan of the state’s Ecosystem Restoration Program said, summing up one strain of public opinion.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, Kline and a suite of national experts told the conference: A river pushed around by man only becomes more dangerous.

Page’s article suggests that as much as 40% of the river dredging response to tropical storm Irene on the Vermont side of the lake “made our risk and vulnerability greater.”

Check out the full article here and chime in below.  Comments welcome.

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23 Comments on “Morning Read: Was the response to tropical storm Irene misguided?”

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  1. tootightmike says:

    Some towns are largely built within, or upon the floodplain, and theirs will be a difficult thing to fix. Other towns, like Russell or Potsdam, however have only a few vulnerable properties. While it seems like an easy thing,,,just remove those buildings, or relocate them (sometimes a very short distance)…we tend not to do these little things, maybe exactly because it’s a small problem. If we were to tally the full costs associated with saving one or two buildings though, we’d see that a real savings was just down the line. We need to begin to avoid the next flood now.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Streams or sluices?

  3. Pete Klein says:

    Every solution creates unintended consequences.

  4. Dave says:

    Of course it was misguided.

    All of this was done hastily, without seeking guidance from flood and river experts, or without taking their guidance into consideration when it was offered.

    That is the literal definition of being misguided.

    They have already had to go back to some of these places and undo some of the damage they caused after it was pointed out that they effectively destroyed natural trout habitats.

    The question, in my opinion, is no longer whether these actions were misguided… but whether taking these misguided actions is understandable or excusable given the circumstances.

    I’ve written this here before, but it is worth repeating… it was, and I think still is, a popular opinion in some of these areas that a major cause of the flooding was due to cluttered rivers and streams.

    This was an opinion you could hear over and over again at the post office, at the dinner, and out at the local watering holes. The solution these people talked about, which I thought was a joke at the time, was to drive a backhoe up and down the stream… digging a deeper channel, removing the debris.

    They, of course, blamed the APA and DEC for not letting them do this sooner.

    So it was no surprise to me that the moment regulations were suspended by Gov. Cuomo… backhoes drove up and down those stream beds, doing what you see in the photo above. (By the way, that photo above is not a small isolated stretch… you can see that all up and down the streams in this area)

    And it is also no surprise to me that this well-intentioned, but ultimately uninformed approach has had, and likely will continue to have, unintended negative consequences.

    By the way, another interesting note to this story: As best as I could tell, there was only one member of the Keene Town board who was very vocal about the need to consult these experts… she was voted out in the recent election.

  5. Paul says:

    You often make decisions based on incomplete information. Now that we know more we can do better. NY should be doing what Vermont is.

  6. Paul says:

    “And it is also no surprise to me that this well-intentioned, but ultimately uninformed approach has had, and likely will continue to have, unintended negative consequences.”

    I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone. A positive consequence could be that it is done differently next time. And there will be other opportunities to get it right. Maybe very soon.

  7. ADKrealist says:

    The first responses were emotional. They were rooted in “when I was a kid” experiences by well-meaning local people. They didn’t know any better but felt they had to do something. The State largely left locals to fend for themselves, so they turned places like John’s Brook into a storm drain, only to find out later that, oops, bad idea, won’t solve any problem at all really.

    I don’t think ‘naturalizing’ these areas will ever get done now. We just have to live with the natural and man-made damage. Decades from now, what remains of the ‘repair’ work will be seen as tragic and misguided.

    When the full scope of the changes to the streams comes into view, one is forced to see the changes as, for the most part, permanent. “Fixing” a stream isn’t really possible — maybe at the edges you can fuss with it but that’s all. The only really rational choice is to get out of the way of the streams. But few of us are always rational.

  8. Ken Hall says:

    It appears that humans have had an insatiable desire to bend “Nature” to their will since the advent of agriculture. When mankind was primarily of the hunter gatherer mindset those who lived to pass their genes on likely kept a “weather eye out” and when they detected the ominous rumble of runaway water “they got the hell out of Dodge” and lived to hunt and gather another day. Once we discovered that homesteading was far more amenable to farming than moving multiple times per year we naturally wanted to hunker down close to water, without which we perish.

    Before the advent of “scientific” knowledge the choices we made for our fixed locations were largely based upon luck, historical recollections, luck, historical recollections and more luck. It appears we continue to prefer luck and our virtual snap of the fingers time frame, relative the age of the Earth, historical recollections to allow our preferences to live where we want to live, regardless of scientific/engineering realities, appear rational.

    Again from the full article “zoning ordinances that keep development out of floodplains” are concepts that that I imagine do not warm the cockles of folks hearts. Example, the Mississippi river system with it’s thousands of miles of earthen berms and dikes from its’ headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico.

    The assertion by Kari Dolan of Vermont “Dig it out, make it fast and straight and deep, and we’ll be fine,” certainly fills the bill to encourage building back cultural structures that were damage or washed away. Thus fulfilling the essence of the comment from the full article by Lisa Sun, a Utah law professor who has studied the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, “Smart growth in dumb places is the opposite of sustainability.”

  9. Paul says:

    Life is too short not to spend it living in some of these beautiful “dumb” places. You may live longer and have an easy time hunkered down at the top of some kind of treeless hill but what fun is that?

  10. Dave says:

    “I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone.”

    I imagine it has to be a surprise to the people who thought they were fixing the problem.

    The frustrating thing about this is that this is not a case of Monday morning quarterbacking. This is no hindsight is 20/20 sort of thing. People were warning us, loudly, about this as it was happening. They were ignored.

    After it happened, the Adirondack Council posted photos (like the one above) and issued a statement to explain what went wrong and try to tell us why we should be concerned.

    Here is one quote from that statement: “Ironically, the decision by local highway crews to widen and straighten sections of the river will only lead to more flooding problems in the future.”

    Exactly what we are talking about now.

    Yet at the time, people expressed extreme skepticism about it… you, Paul, in comments on this site said they had no facts, said it was innuendo, and called it spin.

    So let’s not re-write history too much here.

    There were people who were telling us what was happening. Some of us knew they were right, some of us chose not to trust them. Unfortunately, the latter group had control of the backhoes.

    So, yes, we should absolutely learn from this mistake… but the mistake isn’t just that we dredged streams when we shouldn’t have… the mistakes is that we ignored, blew off, thought we knew better than, and questioned the motives of the very people who could have helped us.

  11. jeff says:

    The drainage system just went through a major self-reconstruction. What better time to get it back on its previous track before the next similar event than right away. Even with the sluice-like nature of the picture above, it will change with a few weather cycles and spring freshets. Slow water drops sand, fills in between the rocks, a storm moves rocks downstream on top of sand. Drop a few trees in the path and new blockages will appear which can start the next re-routing of the watercourse. Those pools will hide fish and critters.

    Like the seashore and levys on the Mississippi how long do we insure houses and structures in the flood-zone when they have been damaged before?

    Somebody needs to drive back in the hollows or walk up the streams and look at man’s past activities and consider the harm of the old iron furnace dam that is filled in behind or the mill foundation crumbling into the creek.

  12. Paul says:

    “After it happened, the Adirondack Council posted photos (like the one above) and issued a statement to explain what went wrong and try to tell us why we should be concerned.”

    Dave, like you say “after it happened”. And people are concerned. Like you also said it was all “well intentioned” and the folks were “uninformed”. You think they were well informed because these guys told them this after almost all the work was done?

  13. Tony Goodwin says:

    I agree that the work done after Tropical Storm Irene could have been planned and executed better. Unfortunately, a combination of the emotional shock, the desire to do “something” and the very real presence of another tropical storm (that did some real damage in the western Catskills) heading up the coast resulted in some decisions that in hindsight seem hasty and ill-advised. Nevertheless, in Keene where I live almost all the work was done at the mouths of tributaries and did not cut off the river from any flood plains. And while Johns Brook is a good trout stream higher up, as it approaches the river much of its flow goes underground. The result is that in dry periods it nearly dries up at its mouth – not exactly good trout habitat. The fix done later is supposed to naturally keep the bed of the brook directly under the bridge deeper and therefore able to take more water in a flood.
    Styles Brook was likewise channelized at its mouth but not anywhere else. The immediate results are not aesthetically pleasing and probably should have been done with larger rocks, but I don’t believe they either made any future flooding worse or destroyed any valuable habitat.
    The section of gravel visible between Keene Valley and St. Huberts is the result of the river naturally changing its course over 20 years ago. The dry channel next to the road has been left as an “overflow meander”.
    I don’t know which of the percentage groups the writer of the Vermont article would place these repaired areas, but I would like to believe that none are in the 40% making things worse category.

  14. dave says:

    “Dave, like you say “after it happened”.”

    And as I also said… there were people who tried to warn us before the work started, and there were most certainly people who were sounding alarms while it was going on. They were largely dismissed.

    I do hope Tony is right, that the worst we did was uglify a few stretches of waterway and that we avoided the bigger mistakes this type of work can cause.

    By the way, props to Brian M. who did a lot of good reporting on this as it was happening. If you recall the emotions immediately following the storm, any topic that questioned local response to Irene was not an easy thing to talk about.

  15. Paul says:

    “If you recall the emotions immediately following the storm, any topic that questioned local response to Irene was not an easy thing to talk about.”

    We didn’t have any trouble talking about it! But that is a good thing. There were some screw-up, somethings were handled very well. Life goes on.

  16. progessive pilgrim says:

    What boggles the mind here is that all these supposedly corrective and protective actions after Irene were undertaken in the context of an announced “suspension” by the Governor of the laws and rules which are normally administered by DEC and APA. These laws and rules generally require permits for any proposed modifications to stream “bed and banks” and for proposed watershed management and flood control projects. No one (including agency officials and their attorneys and the Attorney General) was heard to say that existing state laws and regulations cannot simply be “suspended” by a public pronouncement, even by the Governor.

    The State Administrative Procedures Act requires a rule-making procedure before any regulation can be adopted, amended OR SUSPENDED. Obviously, a suspension of rules cannot be undertaken in time to meet such an emergency and was not.

    It appears our Governor wanted very much to look as though he was taking appropriate leadership action in a time of crisis. However, his grand gesture was unnecessary, at the very least. Existing laws already make adequate provision for genuine environmental emergencies and should have been followed.

    The Environmental Conservation Law allows DEC to “waive” permitting requirements (laws and rules) where action is “immediately necessary to respond to an emergency”. But, this waiver does not allow people to take corrective/protective actions without DEC oversight. Instead, there is a different process of “emergency authorization” by DEC. In such cases, property owners, local governments and state agencies are required to give prior notice to DEC of an emergency and present a plan to address the situation. (If prior notice is not possible, a local govt or state agency can undertake the action and give notice within 24 hours.) The proposed corrective/protective action must result in the least change or adverse impact to life, health , property and natural resources. DEC has two days to respond to any request. DEC must make a formal declaration of “emergency” to waive permitting requirements and may add conditions to the emergency authorization, which cannot continue for more than 60 days.

    The question here is: Did DEC follow any of the emergency procedures set out in the law and its own regulations?

    The APA Act similarly states that the usual permitting requirements are not applicable to any “emergency project which is immediately necessary for the protection of life or property” as defined by the Agency in rules and regulation. Unlike DEC, however, the Agency has not adopted rules or regulations to govern “emergency projects”.

    It would be interesting to look at the records of these two agencies regarding the Irene emergency actions undertaken by individuals, local governments and State agencies.

  17. Paul says:

    “Did DEC follow any of the emergency procedures set out in the law and its own regulations? ”

    Pilgrim, (I sound a little like John Wayne) I think they did. Some things didn’t go well but I think all these procedures were followed.

  18. Tony Goodwin says:

    I agree that the existing emergency regulations were not followed precisely, but I don’t think there was any way to have dealt with the catastrophe expediently if every regulation had been followed. Remember that the threat of a second flood was very real and credible. Furthermore, even if every project had been accompanied by a permit application, the DEC had no way to review the “flood” of applications in a timely manner so that the most critical could be completed before the next flood and the others completed before winter. Remember the flooding last April with the extreme spring runoff, and no one could have predicted such a low snow winter.
    Having submitted permit applications to the DEC over the years for various minor bridge and culvert projects, I can say that the process is not all that difficult. One requirement, however, is to identify the mean high water line – something that would be a wild guess when the terrain has completely changed. I thus maintain that any permit applications would have necessarily included unreliable information and then been given at best only a cursory review or more likely just a rubber stamp approval.
    And I do believe attitudes have changed since Ausable Forks was asking FEMA to fund flood plain buyouts rather than dikes and levees.

  19. brian mann says:

    Regarding the response, I’ve had two questions that still linger in my mind — questions I want to explore further in stories going forward.

    1. Is a widely held public view about rivers that most scientists reject (i.e., straighter and deeper is better) influencing what actually happened after Irene and what may happen going forward? If so, what will that mean for public safety?

    2. Did state officials, who spent a lot of time ramping up for Irene, have enough staff in the field to help communities and homeowners make good decisions after the storm? Does the DEC have enough people-power to respond adequately in situations like this?

    –Brian, NCPR

  20. Paul says:

    “In such cases, property owners, local governments and state agencies are required to give prior notice to DEC of an emergency and present a plan to address the situation.”

    This must not be quite right. How can you give DEC (or anyone) prior notice of an emergency. I guess in some cases it is possible. Was there any idea that what happened in Keene and Ausable was going to happen?

    Apparently in an emergency all this gets thrown out the window anyway.

    Does the DEC have enough people-power to respond adequately in situations like this?

    Of course not. This is National Guard type stuff. It would never be feasible to have a staff that could handle this kind of thing.

  21. progessive pilgrim says:

    Sorry — my shorthand summary was confusing; of cours, one cannot notify DEC in advance of emergencies.

    The ECL and DEC regulations do not allow individuals, local governments or State agencies to unilaterally undertake any actions they want to address emergencies such as the Irene floods. But, the usual permitting procedures can be waived, while DEC oversight is preserved in an alternate “emergency authorization” procedure. To receive a waiver of the usual permit application/DEC review/permit issuance procedures, individuals, local governments and State agencies are required to notify DEC of a perceived “emergency” situation, and request emergency authorization to undertake corrective/protection activities (with a plan to do so) prior to undertaking such activities. If there is no time for advance notice to DEC, local governments and State agencies may undertake the corrective/protective activities first, and then notify DEC within 24 hours. DEC can then issue an emergency authorization, or deny the request.

  22. myown says:

    1. There is plenty of knowledge regarding stream flow that is routinely ignored because the implementation of many of the prescriptions are not politically viable – like moving structures and preventing development of the floodplains. OTOH, if these floods will be occurring more frequently then the collective memory will be stronger, the cumulative costs will rise significantly and previously unacceptable options may become viable.

    2. DEC does not have enough people-power to respond adequately in situations like this. However, what is really needed is better training of State, County and local personnel involved in flood emergency response – from the planners to the bulldozer operators, in proper stream management and restoration techniques.

  23. Tony Goodwin says:

    Brian’s two questions:
    1. I don’t know about Vermont, but I didn’t see that any stream was straightened in the recovery process, and it’s hard to tell if any deepening was done because the flood did some deepening of its own. I seem to recall that the folks in Ausable Forks wanted to remove an island/gravel bar but that was partly because of all the tree debris that had lodged on it.

    2. DEC barely has enough staff to deal with routine business let alone a disaster. There was no way they could have actually reviewed all of the permit applications in a timely manner to permit work to start before winter, let alone before the next storm hit. If the DEC was just going to just “rubber stamp” every application without review, might as well save the paper. The DEC may have learned from this and next time be prepared to bring more personnel in from other parts of the state to better supervise the work, but as Myown says, training for highway crews would also be important.

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