Tropical Storm Irene: Remembrance and Resilience

September 1, 2012

As Hurricane Isaac lashed the Gulf Coast this week dropping two feet of rain over parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, news teams noted the storm struck New Orleans on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina after skirting Florida following the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, the nation’s costliest hurricane.

Here in New England, images of flooded homes, submerged cars and washed out roads arrived on the one year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, which dumped three to ten inches of rain over the White Mountains and Green Mountains of Vermont in a matter of hours on August 28, 2011.

The backcountry of the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) is still recovering one year after Tropical Storm Irene washed away roads, bridges, trails, campgrounds and other recreation sites. Forest Supervisor Tom Wagner and State DRED Commissioner George Bald made a decision to immediately close public lands one day in advance of Irene.

I had been leading a hike that Saturday last August to celebrate the centennial of the original protection of Mount Sunapee by The Forest Society in 1911. Our group emerged at the Mount Sunapee State Park group campground in late afternoon to find alarming “Emergency Evacuation and Closure” signs awaiting us. The evening events were hastily cancelled. We shared a 100th birthday cake for the mountain in a dead calm, eerie silence as even birds stopped singing. We sensed a pressure drop; time to hunker-down.

What ensued Sunday as Irene arrived would have been much worse had hikers and campers remained dispersed throughout the WMNF and State Parks. There is no doubt the emergency evacuation decision to saved lives as nearly a foot of rain fell in the mountains. To be fair, Vermont got the brunt of the rainfall and the damage as homes and businesses washed away. Brooks and rivers which drain the steep mountain valleys are described as “flashy;” prone to rapid rise and flooding across narrow valley floors.

The most conspicuous clean-up efforts prioritized prominent damaged bridges and roadbeds along Rte. 112, the Kancamaugus Highway, at Loon Mountain and the popular Rocky Gorge and along Rte 302 in Crawford Notch to get roads repaired for the foliage tourism season. Once leaf season ended and snow arrived early at Halloween, unseen damage to many backcountry trails and footbridges wasn’t discovered by the hiking public until this spring.

Work to restore damage actually began last fall as the National Forest, State, partners, and volunteers worked to stabilize hiking trails for winter and have snowmobile trails ready for snow. USFS officials estimate the Forest’s infrastructure sustained $10 million dollars of damage from the storm. Approximately $4.5 million in emergency funds from the federal DOT were received and were put to use getting sites like Rocky Gorge on the Kancamagus Highway restored. Crews and contractors were busy designing and restoring roads and bridges. Trail crews have working all summer removing tree blow-downs and fixing gullied treadways, erosion and damaged bridges. The Forest Service states that a lot of good work was done this year.

Yet according to WMNF Supervisor, Tom Wagner, there is more work to do. “We ask the public to be patient. We continue to deal with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene even though visitors may have forgotten or never even heard about the storm.” The Forest Service estimates $2-$3 million of trail damage remains to be done. Many trails sustained more damage than originally estimated. The WMNF was recently selected to participate in the National Forest Foundation’s “Treasured Landscape” campaign to raise money for continue restoration of trails and watersheds.

WMNF Public Affairs Officer, Tiffany Benna adds “while it’s easy to focus on the damage itself during the anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, the Forest celebrates its partnerships with organizations and volunteers who rolled up their sleeves to help in the restoration efforts. Together we are making a difference on the landscape for today, and for tomorrow, whatever it may bring.” To learn how you can support restoration efforts, contact the WMNF at (603) 536-6100 or visit:

More common?

Severe hurricanes are uncommon over inland regions of New England. The residual rains of late summer and autumn tropical systems are much more common. Compared with New Hampshire, Vermont and New York bore the brunt of the heavy flooding damage. Recovery and rebuilding efforts increasingly include the word “resiliency” in the design of infrastructure including roads, bridges, culverts and hiking trails in mountainous regions,

The historical return interval for major hurricanes such as the infamous September 21, 1938 hurricane is on the order of once every 100 years. The new question is has that now changed? If so, what steps can mountain communities and the state of New Hampshire take to protect public safety and prevent recurring damage from future tropical storms arriving at more frequent intervals in the future?

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education and Volunteer Services for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears once a month in the New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at or through the Forest Society Web site: