In the wake of Irene, Vermont nonprofits, state agencies and residents have worked together to make their communities more resilient as climate change threatens to unleash more extreme weather.
Planting a tree may seem like an insignificant act when strategizing how to defend against a storm that may spread over 500 miles of land and turn a babbling brook violent.
But Mary and Greg Russ argue that trees should be at the center of any flood resilience plan. The Sharon couple heads the White River Partnership, a nonprofit committed to a healthy watershed that has been planting trees along the river since 1996.
“We noticed that places where we planted trees got through Irene without a lot of erosion,” said Mary Russ, executive director of the South Royalton-based organization.
Her husband, Greg, is the nonprofit’s monitoring coordinator. He listed the varied benefits of planting trees along riverbanks: They keep the river cool, offer shade and provide aquatic life with food. In a flood, he said that trees function as “speed bumps.”
“There’s this misconception that you want to get the water out fast,” he said. “But speed increases the erosive power of the river. What you want to do is slow it down and take the power out. If you take the power out, there’s less erosion.”
The partnership helps landowners plant “riparian buffers” of native shrubs, trees and perennials along their riverbanks and conserve open land along rivers to allow overflow without damaging infrastructure. After Irene, the group also established a culvert replacement project, which replaced 10 culverts in Rochester and Hancock, Vt., over the last seven years and has worked to conserve the fields that were underwater during Irene.
Without a buffer, a river may erode the surrounding land when a large storm hits — just as farmers who lost chunks of their fields to Irene saw firsthand.
Still, as Greg Russ sees it, erosion is natural: Rivers are meant to roam, and Irene served as a “geological reset button” that attempted to make up for centuries of constraints in just a few hours. Streams that had been cut off from their flood plains for centuries broke their banks and rambled freely.
When unfettered by human infrastructure, rivers carve out new channels at will. The partnership’s goal is to give “the river the room it needs to respond to the climate we’re experiencing,” Mary Russ said. When a river can safely fill its flood plain, it slows down, lessening destruction for everyone downstream.
Irene was one of a procession of tropical storms that have left their stamp on the Upper Valley over the centuries, but it also bore the marks of a warming climate.
“As storms are curving along the eastern seaboard, most of New England actually is in the path for those systems,” said Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, a climatologist at the University of Vermont and the state climatologist, a fact borne out in warnings about Henri earlier this month, even though only a moderate rain fell on the Upper Valley.
The Great Vermont Flood of 1927, the closest comparison to Irene, established many of the records still standing in each of the Twin States today. Looking backward can prove prescient. The hotspots of pronounced damage had barely shifted between 1927 and 2011, Dupigny-Giroux said. Roads along rivers were vulnerable then, and they are vulnerable now.
“Storm systems are probably bigger (now),” said Dupigny-Giroux. “There may not be as many of them, but they do produce more precipitation.”
Hurricanes are “heat engines,” she notes. They need the warm water along the Atlantic Gulf Stream and the coasts to fuel their ascent northward. As ocean temperatures climb, they add fire to hurricanes’ fury.
Dupigny-Giroux listed a range of shifts in tropical storms as climate change accelerates: They encompass a far greater area; they drop more rain than hurricanes of the past; and they move slowly, and so the deluges where they linger are worse.
Irene held true to those trends. It sprawled across a 500-mile diameter, dropped as many as 8 inches of rain in parts of Vermont and stalled over the Hudson and Connecticut river valleys for nearly seven hours before edging north.
Storms of Irene’s magnitude are rare, making them hard to predict.
Although dubbed a “hundred-year storm,” that does not mean that the Upper Valley is safe for another 90 years. “If conditions are right, you could get two 500-year storms — several of them — in the same year,” Dupigny-Giroux said.
The rivers that form a spidery web across the Upper Valley once roamed more freely over their flood plains. Then they became the veins of New England’s industrial and transportation systems, and were transformed to meet that purpose. Dams were built to capture the rivers’ energy, and waterways were channelized so boats could pass.
“Dig them straight” was the philosophy of river management at the turn of the 20th century, according to Mary Russ.
The more aggressively bulldozers and dynamite straightened the rivers, the faster they flowed and the more violently they flooded.
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“More than 200 years ago with colonization of Vermont, our river channels were channelized; they were straightened for agriculture, for forestry, for power, for all sorts of reasons,” said Gretchen Alexander, a river scientist with the Vermont Agency of Conservation. “Rivers were often pushed to one side of the valley or another, and then sometimes a road was put right next to the river to keep it pinched between the edge of the valley and a road, or sometimes a railroad.”
In that process, many rivers became disconnected from their flood plains. With no room to spill over their banks, those rivers eroded deeper into the valley, Alexander said. Unable to discharge in their flood plains, rivers gain more and more energy, making floods so destructive that they can sweep away vulnerable infrastructure. Only floods of the greatest magnitude, like those during Irene, are able to surmount the riverbanks at all.
Alexander’s department works with the White River Partnership and other local groups to restore the natural riparian landscape. The Vermont Agency of Conservation considers rivers in terms of wide “corridors” that leave room to flood and move, instead of narrow channels.
“Our philosophy around rivers is that these are dynamic systems that change over time and we need to treat them as such, and to the extent that we’re able to, keep our investments out of harm’s way,” Alexander said.
In the last 15 years, her agency has secured over 100 river easements. Instead of straight-jacketing a river with riprap or armoring, the agency plants buffers of native plants and secures open flood plains.
Alexander described the easements as “insurance” against an unpredictable climate.
The destruction after Irene “provided an opportunity to highlight the importance of that approach,” she said. Especially hard-hit communities became committed to giving their rivers more room and preparing for the next flood.
Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member.
NORTH SWANZEY — With music halls closed last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, area residents Seth McNally and Mike Chadinha launched a daring drive-in-style concert series at the Cheshire Fairgrounds.
But this year — when they rebranded the Route 12 venue as Northlands and expanded operations — may have been even more challenging, said Chadinha, of Peterborough, because it meant adjusting to changing case numbers and vaccination rates.
“We knew exactly what was going on, what we were in for,” he said of the 2020 shows, known as Drive-In Live. “This year was more of a rollercoaster ride.”
By all accounts, Northlands was a hit. The venue hosted approximately 40,000 people across its 23 shows, which began in May and wrapped Sunday night with a performance by country artist Lee Brice.
Northlands’ lineup included big names like the folk duo Indigo Girls and country star Kip Moore, as well as the New Hampshire percussion group Recycled Percussion, a local favorite. Performances by jam bands — which often improvise during their shows — such as Goose and the Vermont-based group Twiddle and also by country singers like Jake Owen were particularly popular, according to Chadinha, the venue’s operations director.
After running a no-frills operation last year to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Chadinha and McNally, a Stoddard resident who founded the concert-promotion company M.E. Productions, added concessions at Northlands, including a beer garden and various local food trucks. The venue also got a larger stage, bigger video screens and an improved sound system.
And switching from a drive-in venue that could host 456 vehicles to a more traditional sit-down model — though Northlands used a “pod” system to encourage social distancing — drew larger crowds this year, Chadinha said.
“We upped all production value,” he said. “… We tried to make it so the capacity would be bigger so we could accommodate some bigger acts.”
In addition to area residents, Chadinha said the concertgoers also included people from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. For many, he noted, Northlands is an easier trip than other outdoor venues like the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion in Gilford and the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass.
“I think a lot of people in the area are happy,” he said. “To have a venue in your backyard is pretty great.”
Keene resident Shelby Chapman, 24, said she went to one of the drive-in shows in 2020 and was excited to see several well-known country artists in the Northlands lineup this summer. She and her sister, Shania, saw Moore perform June 19, and she said the experience compared favorably to those at more established venues.
“It was awesome,” she said. “It was actually like one of the best concerts that I’ve gone to.”
Northlands’ organizers “plan to stick around” next year, according to Chadinha, but he said it isn’t yet clear how its shows may evolve. That could include holding music festivals with multiple artists instead of another concert series, he said.
“It’s been a great couple years,” he said. “We don’t want to go anywhere … We do 100 percent plan on being here.”
Chapman, who said she particularly enjoyed the new concessions, added that she would “definitely” return for more shows next year.
“Even with COVID and all the protocols, they did a really good job making it feel normal,” she said.
But getting to that point meant overcoming a number of challenges.
Chadinha recalled visiting the Fairgrounds last winter when M.E. Productions was thinking of moving Northlands from a parking lot to a slope overlooking the site that he said was an empty field at the time. With no prior blueprints to work from, organizers had to create entirely new plans for seating, the stage and concession areas, he said.
They adjusted those plans just before the series was set to launch, turning some of the 550 pods into an amphitheater for which concertgoers could buy individual tickets, after New Hampshire officials relaxed the state’s COVID-19 guidelines. As an outdoor venue, Northlands didn’t need to enforce a strict face mask policy, though Chadinha said more people wore masks at recent shows, with the virus surging again due largely to its more contagious delta variant.
“If you start anything new, you expect there to be some bumps in the road,” he said. “And we hit some bumps in the road. But at the end of the day, I think we got to a good place considering it’s so brand-new and considering we’re in the middle of COVID.”
With more changes possibly in the works, Chadinha said the Northlands organizers have already begun discussions with Swanzey and Fairgrounds officials about what they’d like to see.
“It was really just great to be able to do it again,” he said. “… We just appreciate everyone that supported it.”
Late in 2019, Brandon Zalinsky had what seemed to be stability: a manufacturing engineering job in Manchester a year out of college, a partner with her own engineering career, an apartment in the city, and a strong desire to stay in New Hampshire and put down roots. It was time for the next step: a house.
Zalinsky and his girlfriend started looking around, prioritizing listings in the under-$300,000 range just south of Manchester. But the New Hampshire housing market proved less than hospitable to new buyers in that price range. And it was about to get worse.
As the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the shutdown of restaurants and non-essential businesses — took hold, real estate agents worried that the economic standstill would tank the state’s housing market and send prices and home values plummeting.
It did the opposite. A wave of wealthier buyers, some from out of state, crashed into realty firms, driving up prices and bringing the stock of available homes in the state to record lows. Lower-income buyers in New Hampshire found themselves in a constant state of battle over every listing. Well-heeled purchasers crowded out competitors through cash purchases, sometimes buying houses sight unseen and without inspections. Open houses became bonanzas, and the time allowed for typical house tours dropped from 45 minutes to 15.
Zalinsky realized the next life milestone was going to be a lot harder than he’d thought.
“It’s just every single place: We bid 15 percent over asking, and we lose by $30,000,” he said. “And they waive inspections. It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”
Two years after starting the housing search, Zalinsky and his partner have made offers on 25 houses. They’ve been outbid on all but one, and that home had serious structural problems that forced them to pull out. They are still looking, but with far less confidence.
“I have money to spend to live here, and I just — I can’t do it,” he said. “It’s impossible. And the only way I can do it is by taking on an absurd amount of financial risk on the biggest purchase of my life.”
As the pandemic-driven surge nears its second year, there are some signs that the mania may be starting to diminish, housing experts say. But the factors keeping the market tight and prices high remain.
“It’s been characterized as going from ‘red hot’ to just ‘really hot,’ ” said Ben Frost, managing director of policy and public affairs at the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.
Low supply, historic demand
While housing stock has diminished over the years, the number of houses available in New Hampshire fell sharply this year.
At the end of July 2021, only 1,737 single-family properties were on the market, according to numbers from the New Hampshire Association of Realtors.
July 2019, in comparison, saw 5,609 houses listed, and July 2015 saw about 11,000.
The market was even tighter in February 2021: 1,062 single family homes were on sale that month.
Winter months typically see notable reductions in homes being put on the market. Sellers are less likely to want to move out during the school year, holiday months, and bad weather. But February 2015 saw around 7,500 homes open and on the market, a strong contrast.
Real estate agents and analysts are also looking at another metric: how fast the homes are selling. This year, they hit a record. In July, a single-family home took an average of just 18 days to sell from its listing date to an accepted offer. In past years, such as 2015, that average hovered around 75 days.
Those forces are driving up the price of homes, too. In 2021, the average home price hit another record — $400,000.
The numbers make one thing clear: New Hampshire’s historically low housing supply is causing demand to surge. But there are other factors at play, too.
Mortgage interest rates across the country, currently at 2.17 percent for a 15-year fixed rate, are the lowest they’ve been in 49 years, according to Freddie Mac. That gives buyers significantly more power to take risks on properties that might have been out of their grasp with less favorable financing, real estate agents note.
“It helps because it makes the same priced home more affordable,” Frost said. “For a cash buyer, it doesn’t make any difference.”
But more buying power also benefits sellers, who can raise the prices in turn. The dynamic means even if the low borrowing rates somewhat even the playing field, some buyers can still find themselves priced out.
These days, the magic number in many parts of the state is $300,000. Try to buy a home for any less than that and you will likely struggle to find a home and be outbid on it if you do.
“I think at that low price point, there will always be a demand that’s outpacing the inventory,” said Adam Gaudet, a Realtor at 603 Birch Realty in Concord and the incoming president of the New Hampshire Association of Realtors.
The pandemic elevated two factors fueling the tight market: out-of-state buyers and cash purchases. When interest peaked in escaping urban environments during the early stages of COVID-19 lockdowns, many took their interest — and dollars — to New Hampshire.
“I think the messaging in the country’s gotten out that there are states in the U.S. that don’t have income taxes,” Gaudet said. “Not everybody knew that, and I think some people were like: ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a year where I can work from home, and maybe now is the time to capitalize.’ ”
Joanie McIntire, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker J. Hampe Associates, agreed.
“If you have somebody coming from Connecticut, and they see a house for $700,000 ... that’s a lot of house for not a lot compared to what they can get in Connecticut for the same money,” she said.
However, while agents here talk about swarms of out-of-state plates and phone calls, numbers from the Housing Finance Authority suggest the impact of out-of-state buyers has been less than perceived. The share of houses bought by New Hampshire residents dropped from 75 percent to just under 70 percent since 2019, but Massachusetts buyers did increase by about 5 percent since the pandemic began.
Either way, the intense attention this year caused a feeding frenzy, agents say, and one that benefited buyers with large amounts of cash. Those buyers, who didn’t need financing, could swoop in with offers that priced everyone out.
To Gaudet, the cash purchases signify a notable, if short-term, shift in how wealthier people view their living situation during COVID.
“To get into a home, especially in a state like New Hampshire, cash is king,” Guadet said. “I’ve been in real estate seven years ... but I’ve had more cash deals this year than, combined, the other six years.”
For her first 14 years in real estate, McIntire had an unofficial rule: She never sold a house where the buyer waived a home inspection.
Buyers always had the option to do so. But McIntire, who is based in the Sunapee area and is also Zalinsky’s aunt, would strongly dissuade them from doing so, and for 14 years her clients listened.
“I think they understand that,” McIntire said. “When you tell a first-time homebuyer what the consequences of waiving inspections could mean, they’re generally going to understand that.”
But that changed this year, McIntire says. In this new reality, where cash offers have become some buyers’ weapon of choice, waiving inspections can be the only way for buyers of lesser means to get an edge.
And many clients are now taking that option, she said. “I have written offers that have waived inspections,” she said. “People have signed a waiver.”
It’s a dangerous game to play, McIntire warns.
“If you’re at the top of your price range at say $300,000, and you move in and a week later your septic backs up into your basement, what do you do?” she said.
The tactics sometimes kick in late, even when a property doesn’t seem to have as much competition to start, McIntire said.
“As soon as I let other agents know that I have an offer, then the incoming offers ... escalate to a crazy offer,” McIntire said. “Cash, no inspections, closing two weeks.”
McIntire, for her part, will counsel a client if they are interested in waiving inspections. She has a keen understanding of what repairs cost, knows the price of a boiler replacement or a well treatment. She can give estimates to allow buyers to factor in a worst-case scenario for the property.
Still, the tactic can just as often be used against her clients, she said. And the effect can be demoralizing for the buyers who aren’t interested in skipping the home inspection and watch the offer disappear.
“I think that the consumer is still (saying): ‘Oh my gosh, we’re not going to get this one, this is another one we’re not going to get,” McIntire said.
Zalinsky said waiving home inspections is not something he and his partner are considering — even if it puts them at a disadvantage.
The two are also not interested in pushing themselves into debt and overextending into a price range they can’t afford, despite the low interest rates.
But that prudent approach has taken its toll. Zalinsky and his partner have seen houses of all kinds — those they love and those they would settle for — get snapped up before their eyes.
“Now we’ll walk in and it’s like, you go to an open house and there’s 45 cars at the house,” he said. “Like, do we even bother? There’s no point.”
Despite the low supply, there are little signs that the market could be nearing a turning point. The average number of days that house listings are active has ticked up slightly, as has the number of houses available, Frost noted. And agents are seeing changes on the ground, too.
“I think if you checked in with me two months from now, it could be different,” Gaudet said. “... Out-of-state buyers that would normally be calling me have called less. And at things like open houses, you don’t have nearly as many Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont plates.”
McIntire has also seen signals. Where earlier this year and last year 20 people might show up at a house viewing, these days that number has dropped to four or five, she said.
Still, McIntire urged caution. Even with less interest, those buyers who do show up still fight just as hard to get the house, and many still employ the same hardball tactics — from waiving inspections to paying with cash.
“There has been some cooling,” she said. “But it would be very slight.”
Gaudet said any shift, even if small, could help buyers like Zalinsky.
“I think it’s good when New Hampshire natives have a chance of actually buying New Hampshire properties,” Gaudet said. “So I’m seeing more of an evening out in that regard. So I think it’s shifting back in favor of New Hampshire buyers.”
Zalinsky is not so sure. After two years of bidding wars, he and his girlfriend are taking a break from intensively searching for a home. They aren’t giving up, but they are hunkering down and waiting for conditions to improve.
“It is really kind of miserable, because all I want is to live here, in a house,” he said. “And it’s just impossible for me.”
As New Hampshire Republicans gear up for the 2022 midterm elections, local party members gathered in Keene this weekend for a picnic, where they discussed current events and urged support for conservative candidates.
The Cheshire County Republican Committee hosted its Coolidge-Reagan Picnic Sunday afternoon at Wheelock Park. The event was attended by local Republican officeholders, activists and candidates, with former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte serving as the keynote speaker.
Ayotte began her address in the crowded pavilion by taking aim at President Joe Biden’s handling of the American military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been at war for nearly two decades. She criticized the Biden administration’s failure to retrieve weapons and equipment from Afghanistan, much of which has fallen into the hands of the Taliban, along with biometric data on the Afghan people who were helping the U.S., which could lead to them being targeted.
“What keeps me up at night is that we know that this terrorist threat is going to grow again,” she said. “We saw it with the attack on the airport, with ISIS. We know that the Taliban is very close to Al-Qaida and we think about what happened to our country on 9/11. The military experts have said that within at least two years that threat is going to grow and grow and present a threat to our homeland again.”
Ayotte served as a U.S. senator for New Hampshire from 2011 to 2017, when she was ousted by current U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.
Ayotte was also New Hampshire’s first female attorney general, holding the office from 2004 to 2009.
During her speech, Ayotte touted actions by New Hampshire Republicans, such as Gov. Chris Sununu, commending him for a budget that she described as balanced and good for taxpayers, and that includes provisions for a school-choice program. She said the past year has demonstrated why parents should have a choice in their children’s education, and agreed when an audience member spoke out against mask mandates.
“Parents are the ones that need to choose, and parents know the best for their children,” she said of schooling options and masks. “Not government.”
After Ayotte addressed the large crowd, a number of people seeking public office also spoke. Among them was Jeff Selander, a Rindge resident who plans to run for Cheshire County sheriff in 2022. He said that he would be more visible in the community than incumbent Sheriff Eli Rivera, a Democrat.
Selander, a retired police officer from Connecticut, said he has more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement and moved to Cheshire County about two years ago.
Asked by The Sentinel for his thoughts on police transparency and accountability — major topics nationally in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police — Selander said both would be priorities for him if elected. As for whether excessive use of force is a problem, he said no, overall, but that there are some bad actors who should be held accountable for their actions.
Selander said he’ll run a grassroots campaign, adding that “when you got motivation, you don’t need money.”
Another candidate making an appearance Sunday was Bob Burns, who plans to run for a second time to represent New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District, a seat long held by U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H.
Prior to speaking to the crowd, Burns, a Bedford resident who works in quality control in the pharmaceutical industry, said he’d like to focus on less run-of-the mill issues. One of his priorities if elected would include ensuring the safety of drugs produced in China and India, he said.
Like Ayotte, he also took aim at the Biden Administration’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, particularly regarding weapons and supplies left behind. He said he is especially worried about explosives, as well as night-vision goggles, which he said would make a big difference in the hands of the Taliban.
Burns, who first ran for Congress in 2018 but was defeated in the primary election, told those at Sunday’s picnic that the party needs to fight for every seat at the federal and state levels. But he also told people not to underestimate the importance of local offices such as school boards or election officials.
Also present Sunday, though she didn’t speak publicly, was Rita Mattson, who is running in a special election to represent Cheshire District 9 in the N.H. House. The seat was previously held by long-time Rep. Doug Ley, a Jaffrey Democrat, who died in June following a battle with cancer. The primary is scheduled for Sept. 7 with the general election set for Oct. 26. The district covers Dublin, Harrisville, Jaffrey and Roxbury.
Mattson said there are two main issues that drove her to run: taxes and school choice. She said that maintaining “The New Hampshire advantage” of no income or sales tax is a priority for her, and that there are many people who just barely miss qualifying for tuition assistance for private schools, but could still use it.
Mattson, of Dublin, also ran for the House seat last year. “There’s so many kids that need to go to a different school,” she said. “And they don’t have the chance to because of their financial [situation].”