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Sunday, September 25, 2011

NH communities can learn much from Irene

Guest Commentary

You cannot help being sobered by the destruction and personal loss triggered by Irene. The stories of how people have come together prove that there is strong community spirit and civic responsibility among us New Englanders.

Building on that robust base of social capital, there is an emerging foundation of knowledge, skills and models for intermunicipality cooperation available to prepare communities to anticipate and adapt to these types of severe weather events.

There is a critical need, in the wake of Irene, for government decision-makers and staff to mitigate the scale and scope of the future impacts we can expect.

Specifically, public works personnel, planning and zoning boards, conservation commissions, regional planning agencies, and municipal managers and elected officials can assess the vulnerability of infrastructure.

They can identify the critical landscape features that mitigate storm impacts and protect communities from more extreme damage and prioritize how to invest limited resources to ensure maximum protection.

The federal government’s hurricane database shows that such events in New England are rare, but how rare are the rainfall amounts experienced in association with Irene?

Of the 15 largest flood events since 1934, including Irene, eight have occurred in just the last five years. All of this out-of-control water is paralleled by increased expenditures of federal government disaster funds. In New Hampshire alone, there has been more than a doubling of these funds since 2005 as when compared to the previous 15 years.

In the face of these risks and pressures, one set of New England communities has taken a proactive stance in assessing their vulnerability.

Under a research grant conducted by Antioch University New England, and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, communities in New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee basin have identified and prioritized road and stream crossings at risk from increasing amounts of runoff, as well as the landscape characteristics that are most critical to mitigating stormwater impacts.

These communities have, for the first time, begun working across town boundaries to address how best to adapt together to our changing weather reality by considering how to align local regulations, develop strategic corridor plans and establish parallel capital reserve funds.

As New England recovers from this storm, local communities and state planners can look at the Sunapee Watershed example to better prepare for the next event, because – as the trend data shows clearly – there will be another, possibly sooner than we would imagine.

Michael H. Simpson is chair of Antioch University New England’s department of environmental studies.