Tropical Storm Irene and the good ship Titanic

by Rep. Kate Webb
On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, civil engineer and Duke professor, Henry Petroski spoke of the intersection of design, failure, and learning. Success does not teach us nearly as much as failure, Petroski notes. When something is working correctly, it doesn’t teach us much. Not until something happens to overwhelm it, are the weaknesses revealed. Such was the case with the Titanic and Tropical Storm Irene.
Thomas Andrews preferred design of the unsinkable Titanic called for bigger bulkheads to handle more challenging situations and more lifeboats. Owner White Star declined. They wanted more passenger space, and besides, more lifeboats would have ruined the view. Loss of this argument cost Thomas Andrews and 1,500 passengers and crew their lives. It also provided a necessary wakeup call changing a trend in steamship design, overhauling maritime and safety regulation and the establishment of the International Ice Petrol. Safety was improved by tragedy.
On August 28, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene touched down in Vermont. Major floodwaters and debris poured through river ways and communities affecting 225 cities and towns. Six lives would be lost. Transportation infrastructure would suffer damage to over 2,500 road segments, 530 bridges, 900 culverts and 200 miles of rail. The Waterbury complex would displace 1,500 state employees and require emergency evacuation and relocation of patients at the Vermont State Hospital. Seventy three thousand customers would be without power and 20,000 community water users would be given boil notices. Hazardous spills from floating fuel tanks would contaminate soils and sediments. Farmers would lose $10 million in crops and see 20,000 acres flooded, washed away, or forever changed. Over 7,200 families would ask for assistance from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In the first month, landfills were overwhelmed with nearly 40,000 tons of flood-related waste.
Recovery costs for Irene are likely around $1 billion. Petroski tells us that conflict between those who design technological systems and those who pay for them are resolved by negotiation – a process that doesn’t guarantee safety. The scientists at the River Corridors Program (a program I helped to put in statute in 2010) have known all along that we were at risk. Two hundred years of channel, floodplain, and watershed modifications, along with historic developmental patterns encroaching on riverbanks, and the tendency to see rivers as static segments vs. dynamic wholes, plus repeated and costly efforts to control these with structural measures are an unsustainable public policy.
Irene helped bring a modicum of political will to the State House this year allowing us to finally update some of this entrenched policy. Did it go far enough? No. But clarifying authority, activity, and training as to what may and may not be done in rivers will help. So will using science to define the size and placement of bridges and culverts. It is unlikely that the rivers flowing through downtown Montpelier and Middlebury will ever have access to their floodplains, but identifying critical areas and protection zones upstream will certainly help. Habitat restoration will promote equilibrium, save infrastructure, and support fish and wildlife. Finally, preventing further development in the floodplain by encouraging buyouts will reduce impact if, and, when this happens again.
As the Titanic disaster spurred development of safer ships, so should Irene spur smarter interaction with Vermont’s water ways. Finding the political will to develop science-based policy, requiring a change in behavior and sense of ownership at river’s edge are necessary conditions. Listen to the scientists. Rivers and Lake Champlain are quiet this year. Amnesia has already begun to set in.

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