Keene, New Hampshire
Thursday, May 23
Duncan Watson and André both get the jitters when it rains. For Watson, Assistant Director of Public Works for Keene, New Hampshire, heavy precipitation events bring back memories of the massive storm the city experienced in October 2005 that dumped 11 inches of rain in 24 hours. Near Watson’s house, the Cold River overflowed, unleashing a 20-foot tall wall of water that wiped out many homes and killed seven people.
Video Credit: Duncan Watson
André just hates thunderstorms. At Green Energy Options (GEO), a local store that sells and installs solar panels, André greeted us tail-wagging at the door, sporting a canine thundershirt—a tight jacket that helps with doggie thunderstorm anxiety–in anticipation of the expected afternoon storm.
Pablo Fleischmann, the owner of both André and GEO, reflected on the rainstorms in Keene which, with climate change, have been increasing in frequency and intensity. “In terms of the flooding, I think of it as hello? In the last five years New Hampshire has had four 100-year floods. I think people are saying hmmm.”
In a presentation to Keene residents in 2012, City Planning Director, Rhett Lamb explained that New Hampshire has experienced five 100-year storms and one 50-year storm since 2005. (To clarify a common misconception, a 100-year storm is not a storm that occurs every 100 years, but rather, a storm that has a 1 in 100 (1%) probability of occurring in any given year.) The 2005 storm that haunts Watson was followed by an ice storm in 2008, Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and a major flood in February 2012. Keene has historically flooded a lot. The city of just under 23,400 people sits in a bowl that used to be a lake, so it often turns into one big puddle in heavy rains. But the flooding of the last decade seems unusual, even to people used to wet weather.
Watson attributes the more frequent and intense storms to what he calls caffeinated climate. “I’ve tried to coin the term as a more accurate depiction of what’s going on. Everything is magnified,” he said.
Storms are the X-factor when it comes to climate change impacts for Keene. In hopes of enhancing their resilience, Keene was the first city to partner with ICLEI, an organization that has helped over 1000 local communities develop climate change mitigation and adaptation plans, in 2000. The City completed its Climate Adaptation Plan in 2007. The Plan included over 100 specific targets—goals like replacing 43 percent of the City’s existing culverts, or stormwater pipes, with larger ones.
However, despite its release over six years ago, Keene has yet to implement most of the targets the Plan lays out. Watson fears that, in addition to mitigation and adaptation, ‘suffering’ may be a part of the climate equation for cities like Keene. This is due in part to the City’s physical location in the flood-prone ‘bowl.’ Another barrier to action stems from the ongoing budgetary issues not uncommon in small cities. The culvert replacement was estimated at $4 million—money that the Public Works Department simply doesn’t have at the moment. Kürt Blomquist, Director of Public Works, lost seven employees as a result of budget cuts in the past few years.
“If I had [additional staff] could I do more proactive stuff? Yes,” Blomquist said. “Instead, we react. We keep up.”
In one example of Keene’s reactive response to the February 2012 flood, Beaver Brook, which runs through the city, was cleared to increase water flow, and consequently, its capacity for stormwater. Public Works crews removed debris from Beaver Brook, but also cleared vegetation from the banks—a controversial move by some standards because riparian vegetation reduces erosion and provides wildlife habitat. The Department of Public Works recognized that dredging the Brook would be a more efficient method of increasing flow, but while waiting for the necessary permits to be approved, they decided something needed to be done.
“Citizens that were impacted by flooding needed to see the City being proactive in dealing with flooding issues,” Watson told us. “I’m actually not sure it will decrease flooding—we’ll have to see.”
Another one-off project replaced an old culvert on Belvedere Road with a larger box culvert after the road was destroyed in the same 2012 flood. According to Blomquist, a big challenge with culvert enhancement and other infrastructure projects is that the federal government only matches funds for repairs to and replacements of existing infrastructure. It does not match funds for enhancements to increase capacity, despite the fact that urbanization and climate change scenarios suggest increased stormwater capacity is a necessity.
Despite its current ‘response mode,’ the City maintains a long wish-list of more comprehensive actions in its Adaptation Plan. Referring to a target to map and base future zoning on Keene’s 200-year floodplain (rather than the current 100-year standard), Watson said, “A 200-year floodplain map makes complete and utter sense from a practical standpoint—but then you’re dictating what people do with their land.”
Autonomy over land use is a sticky issue all over the country, and certainly no different in New Hampshire, where the state motto is ‘Live Free or Die.’ In Keene, ‘Robin Hoods’ often fill empty parking meters before the government can slap on tickets—a friendly gesture to neighbors but also an indication of the City’s strong independent streak. Sure enough, as we pulled into a parking spot near Fleischmann’s store, an anonymous Robin Hood slipped a quarter into the meter and disappeared before we could thank him.
“People mostly want independence. That’s a huge part of the mentality of the State,” Fleischmann informed us.
When it comes to renewable and distributed energy, though, New Hampshire’s ‘Live Free’ motto may jive with an interest in independence from the electric grid. Fleischmann is banking on that drive for independence and the next big storm to bring more customers into GEO looking for backup solar power–both to lower their electric bills and to keep their lights on when the wind is blowing.
Raindrops pelted Watson’s office window as our visit ended. He looked at the puddles forming in the parking lot with trepidation, recalling the close call his family experienced in 2005. Back at GEO, André was probably tucked in his crate, shivering with every strike of thunder. The suffering that Watson considers an inevitable step toward comprehensive adaptation might be as much psychological as it is physical. And figuring out how to turn that suffering into productive energy and creative action is a psychologically daunting task, especially on a rainy day in Keene.
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