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As flooding, other disasters in NH grow more intense, officials at all levels face new challenges

Raquel C. Zaldívar / New England News Collaborative
A flood relief fund tracking sign stands outside of Robert Frost Public Charter School. The school lost two classrooms during the December storm.

Many North Country communities are still rebuilding after intense rainfall in December caused some of the worst flooding the region has experienced in decades.

Almost six months after the storm, residents are still trying to navigate the recovery process, account for all they lost, and move forward. But the public officials meant to help them — from small town governments to federal agencies — are also facing new challenges as climate change makes disasters more intense and more frequent.

Read more of NHPR’s reporting on how residents are experiencing the aftermath of the December floods.

“Climate change is here, and it’s real, and it’s serious,” said Peter Gagnon, the town manager in Gorham. “I have concerns about consistent bad weather events and what that would do to communities all over New England, because many of our communities were built upon rivers.”

How climate change is affecting disasters

As the atmosphere continues to warm — driven by humans continuing to burn fossil fuels — it can hold more moisture. That means when it rains, it can rain harder. Extreme precipitation events, the kind that cause flooding, are increasing in the Northeast more than anywhere else in the country. Intense snow and rain events have jumped about 60% since the 1950s.

On the national scale, disasters that cause more than a billion dollars of damage are happening more frequently. In the 1980s, the United States experienced a billion-dollar disaster every four months, on average. Now, the average is every three weeks. (Those numbers include adjustments for inflation.)

And climate change fuels disasters nationwide, the risk of extreme events happening at the same time in the same region is increasing, according to the latest National Climate Assessment. Events can compound in ways that cause greater harm.

More intense disasters are putting new demands on government resources at the federal and local levels. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, says the increasing severity of disasters, and the fact that they are more frequent and more complex, has put more demands on the agency. That’s where many turn when faced with disaster. For flooding in particular, people may find themselves without flood insurance, because they didn’t think they needed it.

“FEMA continues to look at a future defined by climate change, one that requires FEMA to lean harder into its role as a resilience-builder,” FEMA spokesperson Brian Stevens said in an email.

How towns are responding

Town officials say they’re working to help their communities respond, but find that they don’t always have the resources to meet all the needs that arise.

In Gorham, town roads saw a lot of damage during December’s floods, as did culverts. The town is hoping to work on projects to make rivers in town — the Androscoggin, the Peabody and the Moose — safer. They jumped their banks in December, and there are new paths where flooding is a risk. The town is working to designate floodplains and build out new spaces that are meant to flood when rivers get high.

The town is hoping to get federal assistance for repairs on public infrastructure. But for individual homes, it’s more complicated. Town manager Peter Gagnon said dozens of people reached out to his office for help, after their homes were damaged. The December floods didn’t meet FEMA’s threshold for individual assistance, so residents had to look for other options.

Alex Roberts, who lost her house to the flood, said she asked the town of Gorham to apply for multiple federal programs on her behalf. But the town ended up only applying for one. That was a big frustration for Roberts, who has spent the past few months trying to recover from a disaster and find new housing.

Gagnon, Gorham's town manager, said the town did look into several programs and decided one through the Natural Resources Conservation Service was the best fit for Roberts' situation. He also said the town didn’t have the resources to staff a full grants team.

“We have no affirmative duty to reach out to federal programs for relief. A lot of small towns don’t have the expertise or manpower or willingness to do that, but Gorham has. So we’re doing the best we can to try and get grant funding, find out what relief programs are available,” he said.

Gagnon said the town of Gorham is trying to balance helping individuals with spending time on larger projects, like protecting town infrastructure.

And navigating the FEMA process for getting help repairing roads and culverts has been difficult. Gorham is even using a simplified version of the federal process.

“It's kind of an ongoing joke that even the simplified version, it's like simplified calculus,” he said.

Gagnon also has a vision for some sort of guide — a free or low-cost FEMA consultant, who could hold the hands of small towns as they navigate the bureaucracy. And he’d like the state to pitch in more with funding for climate change mitigation projects or road improvements.

State lawmakers sponsored bills that would have created more options for disaster aid for municipalities in New Hampshire this session, but each of those efforts died.

In Conway, flooding often cuts off some roads. The town has seen three 100-year floods in 13 years. But officials said the December floods were the worst they’d ever seen.

“I grew up here as a kid,” town manager John Eastman said. “There were parts of Washington Street that flooded that I had never seen in my lifetime.”

The town is trying to figure out how to protect lower-lying neighborhoods that are most prone to flooding.

During storms, officials station an ambulance and fire trucks in one part of town that becomes inaccessible during storms, with the roads in and out flooding and the neighborhood becoming an island.

Eastman said the town has been trying to figure out how to move beyond that band-aid solution. They’re studying whether it’s feasible to do a project that would protect lower-lying areas by raising the road and creating more drainage for the water.

But taxpayers would still need to vote to support that kind of project, he said. And he’s not sure if people would go for the tax hike.

Federal programs facing new challenges

At the federal level, officials report similar experiences – limited resources and increasing strains.

Officials at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that helps with disaster recovery, said they're seeing watersheds change much faster than they used to, as these big storms bust up the banks and cause more damage.

Matt Brown, an official with New Hampshire’s NRCS office, said the challenges are becoming bigger than what his agency might be able to handle in its current form.

“In particular, a lot of these communities in New Hampshire counted on reliable snowpack. And that kind of winter season might be shifting so much that properties that were once safe might be threatened. I don't know that our program or FEMA's programs will be able to address a lot of these problems sufficiently. So it's going to be a pretty big challenge,” he said.

He said he doesn’t know if their program will be able to provide enough help for people who are seeing more flooding.

“In some cases, we might need to do more long term planning around flood prevention in some of these communities that didn't have that concern in the past,” he said.

For FEMA, one of the main federal agencies helping with disasters, the focus is also shifting to mitigating hazards before they happen.

“FEMA is shifting the federal focus from reactive disaster spending toward research-supported, proactive investment in community resilience so when a hurricane, flood, wildfire, extreme heat or other disaster occurs, communities are more resilient,” said Stevens, the FEMA spokesperson.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include more information about the town of Gorham's application for federal relief.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.