Feature Story in Print and Online Edition of The Conway Daily Sun, Conway NH. An exploration of the damage that remains from Hurricane Irene in our Rivers and Streams in the Mount Washington Valley, New Hampshire. 1/16/2016.
Irene graced us with her presence in August of 2011. According to Earthsky.com, the ninth named storm and first hurricane of the season pushed her way north through New York to New England, where massive flooding took place, over 3 million people lost power and 48 lost their lives, mainly due to inland flooding.
A huge storm — with hurricane-force winds extending from her center — Irene was forecast to reach a Category Four hurricane with winds of over 130 mph, but dry air slowed her development. Still, even after being downgraded to a tropical storm, Irene broke flooding records in 26 rivers across the Northeast, including New Hampshire.
In the valley, more than 100 homes and several businesses were damaged or destroyed. The Glen Ellis Campground lost all 220 campsites, and many hiking trails were so devastated that the U.S. Forest Service chose not to rebuild them.
As the fifth anniversary of Irene approaches next August — and with a rare January hurricane, Alex, already churning in the Atlantic — unsightly memories of her visit can still be seen around the Mount Washington Valley, especially along our rivers and streams.
One river that stands out locally is the Rocky Branch, a tributary of the Saco that flows through Bartlett and part of Jackson.
Despite the fact that much of Irene’s fury has been mitigated — such as repairs to infrastructure as well as attempts at physical improvements designed to thwart the next threat of flood — we can only speculate what could happen if we are ever faced with such a devastating natural event again.
The recent downpours in the valley, in what is typically a month of quiet cold and snow, have caused our rivers to swell once again. And with El Nino threatening to wreak havoc on the West Coast, we are given frequent reminders of how it feels to be held captive by extreme weather.
What makes this river interesting is that it almost provides glimpses into two contrasting worlds: areas that remain relatively untouched and devoid of human-made structures in its upper stretches, as well as downstream portions that have been settled and built upon.
The Rocky Branch is just north of Glen and parallels Jericho Road off Route 302, passing by houses and camps as it makes its way through to National Forest Land.
It is not a large river by any stretch, but if you examine the current shoreline, it becomes obvious that it is subject to strong flood patterns that were greatly amplified by Irene. Both the road and trail are prone to flood damage and were closed for repairs for quite a while after Irene hit. Many of the downstream settlements saw flood damage, bridges were clogged with debris, and parts of the streambed had to be rebuilt with the use of heavy machinery, particularly before the confluence with the Saco. The upland portions were scoured and pummeled by debris, but with no human development to account for, the damage can be perceived as minimal.
If you hike along the Rocky Branch, Irene displays her scars loud and clear. Undercut banks, erosion, fallen boulders and vast fields of scoured sand and rock remain. Huge log jams dot the riverbanks like a series of sutures, having been pinned helplessly at key areas that provided physical resistance to the massively powerful water flows. The sheer power of these rivers, when raging, is quite unimaginable.
It should come as no surprise to note that the Saco River flooded its banks during Irene. The Saco typically swells over its banks in springtime regardless of the weather patterns when snowmelt enters the watershed as temperature rises. It is somewhat predictable in this area, and people have learned to adapt. Other local rivers of particular note are the East Branch of the Saco, a mountain stream that demonstrated a good deal of scarring from Irene as well as the Sawyer River in Hart’s Location.
So, the question is, what is the proper response to a calamity like Irene?
Most obviously, we pay for recovery efforts, likely repeatedly over time as our climate changes and we grow in population and become more vulnerable to weather events.
A Huffington Post article said that one New Hampshire utility alone (Eversource) would tack on 12 cents per month for four years to each customer to recoup the $7.1 million the storm cost the service company. And this is just one of multiple utilities in the state. In a New York Times article aptly titled “Hurricane Cost Seen as Ranking Among Top Ten,” recovery costs were estimated at ranging from $7 billion-$10 billion and one of the most expensive catastrophes ever. Wikipedia estimates overall damages from Irene at $15.6 billion — and remember that by the time she hit New England, she had been downgraded to a tropical cyclone.
No one seems to know for certain the overall impact of this weather event, but there is no doubt it’s significant. In a cash-strapped state like New Hampshire, which is seeing challenges maintaining basic, critical infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges, there simply aren’t any preventative or supplemental infrastructure investments to be made.
But it is important to remember the lessons of Irene. We cannot forget that rivers and streams do not play by human rules; there is a natural order to the world that humans attempt to manage. Rivers are designed to flood, and in an ideal world, it’s part of a healthy ecosystem. According to www.floods.org, flooding “is a natural process that forms and maintains floodplains and coastal zones. Periodic flows of water that overtop the banks of a river and that encroach upon coastal areas are the lifeblood of the riparian corridors, marshes, beaches …
“Flooding from hurricanes and storms,” it continues, “is the key process in providing such tangible benefits as increased soil fertility, wetland creation, rejuvenation of spawning gravel, creation of barrier islands, promotion of aquatic habitat, transportation of large woody material that provides fish habitat and bank stability, promotion of plant establishment, and the evolution of channels and shoreline features such as dunes.”
Observing the resulting chaos of flood events, we tend only to see massive destruction. By building streamside homes and camps, we find areas like Transvale Acres being severely impacted. As humans, we forget a very simple concept: Rivers create floodplains — that is, layers of soil, sediment and organic matter (like branches and logs) deposited outside of its banks during a flood event. Sediment is deposited over time, creating layers of rich, fertile soil that feed a new generation of flora and, in turn, fauna that form the landscape. As trees and plants take hold in this rich soil, they build up natural barriers that keep stream erosion at a minimum. When we remove these natural buffer zones to enhance views or build homes, we open ourselves up to large-scale flooding events that can cause significant property damage.
Michele L. Tremblay, president of the New Hampshire Rivers Council, also recognizes the need for a better understanding of natural river cycles, saying, “The floodplains are for storage and replenishing soil nutrients. With lake and ocean properties unattainable for most and largely developed, rivers have become the populist waterfront real estate market. Unfortunately, people have forgotten about the natural events such as floods and migration of stream channels that have always been a reality for rivers.”
Brian Johnston, assistant recreation ranger for the Saco District of the U.S. Forest Service, was here during Irene, and said the scope of that event caused the service re-evaluate its policy moving forward.
“From my point of view, we hadn’t seen an event like that before. There were huge sediment dumps along our rivers and streams from the sheet floods, lots of trees were uprooted … it was unprecedented.”
In terms of risk management, the Forest Service recognizes that “we are not going to control nature,” Johnston said. “But what we have learned is to anticipate other things in the future happening of this magnitude as climate change alters the scope of weather events.”
Going forward, the Forest Service will employ what Johnston calls an “adaptive management strategy.”
“There was a lot of damage to trails and service roads that were simply too expensive to replace,” Johnston said. “The trails are still there, but in a different format.”
Looking back at the events of Irene, and the scars she left, should give us pause to our vulnerability and lead us to think carefully about creating smart development plans and keeping a healthy respect for the nature of things. As we learned from Irene, we certainly can’t control these events; we can only mitigate the damage. The scars left on our landscape are reminders never to forget the power of the natural order of things.
Rich Collins is an Intervale/Greenland New Hampshire-based freelance writer and media consultant who spends much of his time outdoors in the Mount Washington Valley. For more information visit his website, Thirstproductions.com.