By: Tara Kulkarni, Ph.D., P.E., Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
The unprecedented flooding and damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 was front and center in the minds of approximately 150 people who participated in the Resilient Vermont Conference on May 20-21, 2016, at Norwich University.
Also on display in almost 50 sessions over the two-day event were the human resilience and the Vermont Strong spirit that followed in the wake of Irene’s devastating flooding and damage.
Norwich co-hosted this inaugural conference with the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), which created the Resilient Vermont Project in 2012-2013 with the goals of better understanding the risks from events such as Irene, improving emergency management, and providing necessary resources and investments to strengthen communities. Most importantly, this project sought to promote sharing of lessons learned from activities and engagements across multiple stakeholders.
As President Richard Schneider noted in his opening remarks, Irene really brought home the global warming and climate change conversation to Vermont, making it clear that this global problem has real local consequences, and we cannot act on solutions in a vacuum or in separate silos. Only a true collaboration across multiple lines will help us progress toward effective adaptation and resiliency, he said.
That message – and the need to continue working on resiliency – was echoed by other participants. The Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Deb Markowitz, reminded the gathering of the problems that Vermont continues to face, and in a video message, climate change activist Bill McKibben noted the challenges that we have to address together.
Plenary panelists on both days ranged from leaders representing Vermont communities, watersheds, housing initiatives, energy companies, and community resilience organizations. They provided diverse perspectives on how Vermont dealt with, coped with, and rebounded and strengthened, in the wake of Irene. Failures, successes, lessons learned and progress yet to be made, was highlighted within stories of loss, pain, friendships, and a deepened commitment to make meaningful changes.
Keynote speaker Christa Daniels, program manager for the Climate Preparedness and Community Resilience Center at Antioch University, brought up several important climate-related themes in her interactive talk over lunch on Friday. She noted that 97 percent of scientists worldwide believe that climate change is happening and largely exacerbated by human actions, yet only 12 percent of the general population knows this. Drawing on multiple sources, Daniels showcased the range of beliefs on climate change from alarmed to dismissive, and the gaps that must be closed to get everyone on the same page. She quizzed participants on the factors and barriers that most influence our motivation and action, and offered advice and examples on framing the “climate disruption” conversation for enhanced public engagement.
These ideas of overcoming barriers, improving public education and involvement, and doing more with less, carried across the almost 50 sessions offered across five to six parallel tracks on Friday, and three on Saturday. Participants were encouraged to discuss rivers and watersheds; planned for resiliency in their communities and discussed what tools to use; learned how to hone effective messaging; engaged in conversations about housing, financing, infrastructure and cyber security; participated in demonstrations involving flumes and drones; and went on walking tours to see green solutions and community and youth involvement across Northfield.
The wide variety of content and types of sessions offered something for everyone. Four faculty members from the College of Professional Schools (CoPS) led or co-led sessions that underscored this variety. For instance, the “Housing Vulnerable Populations” session was offered in “PechaKucha” presentation style, with three-to-five speakers presenting 20 slides each, for 20 seconds per slide, with just pictures, no text. Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Chair Prof. Edwin Schmeckpeper embraced this challenging format and presented it effortlessly, greatly engaging the audience. Prof. Huw Read, director of the Center for Advanced Computing and Digital Forensics as well as the Global Cyber Threat Observatory, and CSIA faculty Kris Rowley, who has previously served as the CISO for the state of Vermont, co-led the cybersecurity session and were able to enjoy an intimate conversation in their small group.
This was also true for the Vermont Infrastructure Report Card session, where Prof. Tara Kulkarni, of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, co-led the small group discussion with colleagues from the Vermont section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Prof. Kulkarni also co-led the walking tour of Northfield’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure sites, which offered those wanting to stretch their legs an opportunity to continue their conversation over a walk through town and see some climate interventions in action. Besides CoPS faculty, Kathy Murphy-Moriarty, the Associate Vice President of Communications and Marketing at Norwich, spoke to a packed room of attendees wanting to learn about effectively communicating complex and challenging issues to various audiences.
For Norwich University to serve as the host site for this inaugural conference on a critical issue was a natural fit: Service to our communities is just as integral to our identity as service to our nation, and that commitment extends from the bottom to the very top of the University. More than 4, 000 hours were put in by Norwich students, faculty, and staff through the Center of Civic Engagement alone in the aftermath of Irene, emphasizing the university’s principle of service. And at the highest level, Norwich leaders like Gen. Gordon Sullivan, who has issued a strong call to action on the climate-security-resiliency front, and an upcoming CoPS initiative on exploring these ideas through the proposed Center for Global Resilience and Security, are setting a vision and blazing a trail that is quintessential Norwich.