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Spring 2011 flooding: Sediment plumes from the Lamoille River, the Winooski River, and shoreline erosion on South Hero. Photo: Lake Champlain Basin Program.
Spring 2011 flooding: Sediment plumes from the Lamoille River, the Winooski River, and shoreline erosion on South Hero. Photo: Lake Champlain Basin Program.

A year later, learning new flood management techniques

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A year has passed since spring floods and Tropical Storm Irene wreaked havoc on Lake Champlain and its tributaries. Researchers, scientists, safety officials and nonprofit leaders have been meeting in New York and Vermont, trying to sort out what those events mean for the future of communities in the Champlain Valley, and for the lake's ecosystems. Last week they gathered at the University of Vermont. Sarah Harris was there and has our story.

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Regional emergency management leaders talk about flood response in their communities. Photo: Sarah Harris

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Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

After last spring’s heavy rains caused widespread devastation, with Lake Champlain above flood stage for months, government officials in Vermont and Quebec asked the Lake Champlain Basin Program to organize a conference on flooding. Ten days after that request was made, Tropical Storm Irene hit.

Bill Howland is the basin program’s director. He says that after Irene, it became clear that it was imperative to find better flood management techniques. "We’ve convened the conference now to really identify, over the course of the next few days, what worked, what didn’t work so well, what could work better, how could we be more resilient as New York, Vermont, Quebec partners dealing with flooding in the future," said Howland. 

The conference participants have come from across the region. They’re meteorologists and geologists, community leaders and planners. And they’re all here to talk about flooding. The sessions are about everything from mapping to climate change to farming techniques. There’s even one about emergency management, where safety experts from New York, Vermont and Quebec each talk about how their offices responded to last year’s floods.

"Those of you in the emergency management community know that sometimes we need a big disaster to get the ball rolling," said Jean-Thomas Bilodeau Fortin. Bilodeau Fortin works with the Ministry of Public Safety in Quebec. One of the big challenges, he says, was standardizing communication across the border. 

"Well last year actually during the floods in 2011 we had many angry citizens calling us telling us the floods were caused by Vermont. Vermont was receiving the same calls saying the floods were caused by Quebec. So now we are always up to date of what’s going on with our counterparts so we have better communication and there are no misunderstandings anymore,"  said Bilodeau Fortin.

Kelly Donoghue is assistant director of emergency services for Clinton County. For him, the biggest challenge was helping communities that that were hard-hit by flooding twice, and he said, "One business itself with apartments, tenants, were affected along Keesville spring flooding in 2011, almost got decimated in Irene. And so how do we prepare, how we have people prepare." 

In Quebec, the devastating floods along the Richlieu River prompted emergency management officials to roll out a new flood alert system. It’s called Vigilance. It puts all the emergency management team’s flood data on a user-friendly  website. It also shares that information with emergency responders and the public, crowd sources from municipalities and pushes out emergency alerts. Bilodeau Fortin said, "It is not an all hazards system, for now it’s only a flood system but eventually we’ll try to use it for other types of events."

At the end of the session, participants ask questions. They want to know who’s funding flood gauges on the lake, and how to coordinate communication between the weather service and emergency management teams.

By noon, it’s time for a break. Laurie Fisher, director of the Lake Champlain Committee, is chatting with colleagues in in the lunch line. The conference has been a success so far, she says, but it’s what happens afterwards that matters most. Fisher said, "Certainly the conversations have been happening. We need to keep them happening. I think the challenge is once you leave a conference like that that you need to make sure that these conversations continue and they have to continue out in the community."

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