Energy & Environment

Climate whiplash: Flash floods damage roads, swamp houses in parts of southern Vermont

Heavy rain flooded streets in Bellows Falls. Photo courtesy of Bellows Falls Fire Department

A storm brought about 5 inches of rain in 24 hours to parts of southern Vermont overnight Thursday, punctuating whipsaw changes in the region’s weather within the past month.

In Manchester, rain that fell from Thursday through Friday morning washed out several roads, flooded basements and backed up sewers. 

In Bellows Falls, firefighters waded through waist-deep water and navigated debris in the roadway, according to a Facebook post from the department. East Dummerston, north of Brattleboro, received 5.19 inches of rain in the same time period, National Weather Service data shows. 

Last summer, drought conditions appeared in the southern half of the state, then spread north and persisted for almost a full year. The dry conditions sparked a drought-related disaster designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Vermont activated its drought task force earlier this month. 

While the northern half of the state is still facing drought conditions, Manchester town manager John O’Keefe had a different description for his region on Friday: “It’s wet.” 

Gillian Galford, a researcher at the University of Vermont who leads the Vermont Climate Assessment, said more than 1 inch of precipitation in 24 hours is considered “extreme precipitation.”

“We definitely have extreme precipitation in Vermont that we have experienced of 1 to 2 inches,” Galford said, and the rainfall totals from the last several days were “getting outside even the threshold for being called extreme precipitation.”

O’Keefe and Karen Tendrup, a selectboard member in Sandgate, compared the damage from this week’s storm to that of Tropical Storm Irene, which ripped apart parts of Vermont 10 years ago.

“It came really fast,” O’Keefe said. “Not a lot of warning from the forecasters. I'm not sure what we really would have done if we had more warning.”

Tendrup, who drove around Sandgate Friday morning to survey the damage, said trees had fallen, roads were washed away, and many areas were still flooded. Most of the flooding came from the Green River, which runs through the small town and eventually empties into the Battenkill. 

“Let me just tell you, if you wanted to jump in the Green River right now, you'd end up in the Battenkill in less than five minutes,” she said. 

After Irene, the town of Manchester replaced a culvert that could better handle storm surges. On Friday, it blew out. 

“I'm sure a lot of municipal officials will tell you, it's like one emergency to the next,” O’Keefe said.

Climate change 

Drought/dry conditions, June 29.

The dramatic switch from dry to very wet weather in the southern half of the state is in line with predictions from climate scientists who say Vermont will become wetter, on average, but less and less predictable. 

Oliver Pierson, lakes and ponds program manager for the state, watches water levels closely, and said the dry conditions began to ease in southern Vermont at the end of June. Water levels in Lake Champlain are just below average for this time of year — a marked improvement from the lake’s spring condition.

Precipitation levels are ​​above average statewide this month, he said, which is helping the northern half of the state emerge from “abnormally dry” and “moderate drought” conditions. Overall, however, precipitation amounts are still below average this year. 

Drought/dry conditions, July 30.

“We’re seeing what people have long predicted to be one of the results of climate change, which are these frequent, intense storm events, or precipitation events, that bring uncharacteristically large amounts of water in a short period of time, which can then be dispersed by periods of dryness,” Pierson said.

Galford said Vermonters can expect more precipitation, and even more extreme participation. 

“So these days of really heavy rainfall, and then also periods of prolonged dry spells and drought,” she said. “The fact that they occurred in the same year is maybe just an example of how variable things can be day to day, week to week, month to month, but in the long term, we may have a year or several years that are very dry or very wet.”

Jesse Kayan, who owns Brattleboro-based Wild Carrot Farm, told VTDigger last August that the dry weather had reduced his yields. The farm is located on sandy soil, and he and his family were worried about drought conditions until the middle of June. 

On Friday, Kayan said a bowl-shaped field on his farm, which never holds water in the summer, has formed a pond. Although extra rain benefits his crops because of the dry soil, it’s also brought the farmers challenges, such as mildew and fungal diseases. They’ve had to buy more fertilizer because the water has washed away earlier applications.

Kayan said he’s been farming for 11 years, and by now he had hoped to have a reliable strategy for his operation. The changing climate has made that tough, he said. 

“To think we've done everything we can do to make this work,” he said, “and to assure ourselves a living and some success — and then it feels like the weather has increasingly just been making this kind of a joke.”

Still, Kayan looks at other places around the world where sea levels are rising and, in the western United States, wildfires continue to burn.

“I would choose Vermont over just about anywhere else in the world to try to farm right now,” he said. “So I feel really, really grateful about that.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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