Brandon works on new flood control rules
BRANDON — Three months after Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont had set a new standard for the rest of the country as crews worked to repair and replace roads and bridges in record time. To the credit of state and local officials, critical flood plain development policies and regulations were coming to the fore with the epic flooding as an eerie exclamation point.
The question now is how to implement those policies while preserving our historic downtowns and protecting public safety, all at the same time. This is the biggest question facing a town like Brandon, which still has a river running through it.
In Brandon, the town’s hazard mitigation plan, or HMP, was finalized on Aug. 22, 2011, six days before Irene struck. While the plan serves as a blueprint for town officials to protect town residents and facilities from any potential disaster, such as ice storms, hurricanes and blizzards, a town can customize the plan to suit its needs.
“It relates to more than floods,” said Brandon Zoning Administrator and Flood Plain Manager Tina Wiles. “But a lot of our HMP was flood-related because of the nature of the town.”
And the nature of the town is that the Neshobe River runs underneath the downtown core. It also flows through residential areas upstream in Forest Dale. There is also the Otter Creek, which routinely floods anytime the area gets more than an inch of rain, flooding low-lying areas on Union Street.
All of those potential flood areas were included in the town’s flood hazard regulations based on flood hazard maps updated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as recently as Aug. 28, 2008.
Wiles became the town zoning administrator in 2008 with a background in real estate and title searches. In the months leading up to the flood, she had completed a FEMA flood plain management course in Maryland and, on Aug. 18, a substantial damage estimation course in Burlington.
“That was originally to help with damage estimation and assist other towns with flooding from spring 2011,” she said. “At the time, there were only 16 of us in Vermont that had that certification.”
Needless to say, it came in handy 10 days later.
So, why was the zoning administrator getting all this flood-related certification? It’s part of her job, Wiles said.
“A lot of people don’t realize the bylaws are there,” she said. “A couple of months into the job, people were applying for permits in flood hazard areas and I realized I didn’t know enough to enforce the bylaws, so I found out more and took some courses.’
READY FOR DISASTER
When Irene hit, Wiles said all of her training was fresh in her mind, but implementing it was not easy.
“I knew what I needed to do, but implementing it was a little more difficult,” she said, adding that town officials were focused on the downtown while she looked to residents stranded in outlying areas.
“People were cut off on Cobb Hill Road and Furnace Road,” she said. “They had no water and not way out.”
She contacted Phil Picotte from the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, who had worked on Brandon’s HMP. He put Wiles in touch with Vermont Emergency Management, who in turn contacted the Vermont National Guard, which delivered fresh water, clean-up kits and ready-to-eat meals to residents in those neighborhoods.
Wiles also implemented the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union phone system to contact town residents. The system automatically dials every telephone number in the school district to relay a pre-recorded message.
“The message was, ‘Call this number if you have been affected by the flood and need help,’” Wiles said. “That was very important because we knew there were people affected and we couldn’t reach them.”
NEW AND IMPROVED
Meanwhile at the state level, Agency of Natural Resources personnel had been working on a study of the Neshobe River Corridor for almost two years. The meeting held in September 2011 at the Brandon Fire Station to present the results was the most well-attended in recent memory.
The study clearly outlined not only the vulnerable areas along the river prone to flooding, but areas upstream of the downtown where fluvial erosion, or erosion caused by heavy water flow, was likely as well. The whole idea is to avoid future risk in development within the town, preventing construction of homes and businesses where the land could erode. Also, when fluvial erosion takes place, the course of the river shifts, creating a flood risk where perhaps one did not previously exist.
Wiles took the results of the study and, working with the planning commission, adopted fluvial erosion hazard bylaws into the local ordinance and updated the flood hazard regulations.
“You’re creating regulations to mitigate future loss from natural disasters,” she said. “You’re trying to take out any risk involved and develop land to a standard to eliminate risk to life and property.”
The next step is applying the new construction standards to lower that risk in any structure proposed in a flood or fluvial erosion hazard area. Wiles said the Development Review Board averages about one flood area permit review per month.
The key terms are “elevate,” “relocate” and “flood proof.” The new standards include raising furnace and water heaters 18 inches above the cellar floor, and using a cellar only as storage, parking or access.
Now that all of these studies, maps and policy analyses are complete, Wiles said Brandon has all the information it needs to prevent more residents from going through what many on Cobb Hill, Newton Road and Furnace Road did last year.
“We’ve done the studies and (the flood) happened just the way the studies said it would,” Wiles said simply. “We need to learn from it and fix it. So, do we fix it as we did 70 years ago or protect future generations with information that we’ve learned?”
Wiles said going door-to-door to check on residents after the flood gave her a firsthand look at the worst case scenario and solidified her belief that changes are needed.
“I think for people who were not impacted, it’s hard to imagine what those people went through,” she said. “And you can’t imagine it unless you’re one of those people, the fear they have of that river…”
Personally, Wiles said the flood taught her a great deal, and not just about changes in policy.
“I’ve learned to have compassion with people no matter what,” she said. “Putting myself in their shoes … I’ve learned that there is community here. This town has a lot of community support and they come together in a disaster.”
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