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February 9, 2012

Weathering a Disastrous Year
By Mark Cheater


In this Feature:


The huge exhalation you heard several weeks ago? That was the collective sigh of relief coming from trail managers and trail advocates across the country as they rang out 2011.

"It was quite a year, let me tell you," says Mike Tully from the parks department in Springfield, Mass., a city that was struck by two deadly, destructive storms last year. "I wouldn't want to go through it again."

From tornados to floods, hurricanes to blizzards—last year was not just a bad year for weather, it was calamitous. In 2011 the United States suffered through 12 separate weather catastrophes each costing more than $1 billion —our worst year ever for weather disasters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

These major storms, droughts and wildfires took a tragic toll; more than 1,000 Americans died, and many thousands of others lost homes and livelihoods. The heart-rending stories of death and destruction were covered extensively in the media last year, but the damage to our nation's rail-trail system often went unreported.

An informal survey by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy of trail managers and advocates in seven states painted a grim picture of 2011. Here are some of the storm stories we heard, how people and trails are faring in the aftermath, and the steps being taken to prepare for the future as global warming changes our climate.

Flooding in Vermont

Large sections of the Island Line's causeway across
Lake Champlain were washed out by high water.

The year got off to an ominous start with the Groundhog Day snowstorm in early February 2011, which dumped more than a foot of snow across parts of 13 states from Oklahoma to Maine. Burlington, Vt., got nearly a foot of snow on February 2, a daily snowfall record—and the snow kept falling all month, reaching a record total of 43 inches by the end of February.

Record snows were followed by heavy rains, and by late spring the level of Lake Champlain had risen to an all-time high of 103 feet—about seven feet higher than normal. These high waters inundated the 3.5-mile causeway on the Island Line, a scenic trail that skirts the eastern edge of Lake Champlain and connects Burlington with the island town of South Hero, via a seasonal bike ferry.

"The lake rose up to the level of the trail and stayed there for a couple months, and wave action basically destroyed the whole trail surface on the causeway," says Brian Costello, Island Line project coordinator with Local Motion, a Burlington-based bicycle advocacy group. "The trail's managers are ball-parking the cost to repair it at $1million."

Local and state officials are currently working to pin down the costs and identify funding sources for repairs. Fixing the causeway will be complicated, Costello says, because it is long and narrow, and only one truck can be on it at a time. Island Line advocates say that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will cover 75 percent of the cost of repairs. Much of the remainder will likely come from donations and local matches, Costello says. Trail advocates have launched Friends of the Island Line Trail to help with fundraising for restoration.

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Tornados in the South

A century-old wooden trestle on the Virginia
Creeper trail was reduced to kindling by
a fierce twister.

For many, the year's terrible weather was epitomized by the tornado outbreak in late April, when more than 300 twisters broke out across several central and southern states, killing 321 people and causing more than $10 billion in property damage.

Alabama was hit the hardest by this severe weather, sustaining three-quarters of the fatalities when a series of deadly twisters swept through the state, including the cities of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

"At one time, there were 27 different tornados moving across the state. One of those was an F5 [twister] that they tracked 200 miles. It literally scoured the earth clean—totally obliterated sections of forest, neighborhoods," says David Dionne, director of Red Mountain Park in Birmingham.

Fortunately, these tornados tracked north of Birmingham's Vulcan Trail, a mile-long rail-trail scaling Red Mountain, and other historical rail lines in Red Mountain Park that are slated for conversion to multi-use trails. "We got off really easy in our park," says Dionne. "We just got some debris rained down on us—plywood, insulation, shingles, toys, papers. Some of the things we recovered came from Tuscaloosa, which is 50 miles away."

About 380 miles away, in the southwestern corner of Virginia, managers of the Virginia Creeper State Trail weren't as lucky. Three tornados spawned from the same system that swept through Alabama on April 27 roared through sections of the 34-mile rail-trail near the town of Abingdon, bringing down hundreds of trees.

A 650-foot-long railroad trestle on the trail, originally built in the 19th century, was also in the path of one of those tornados. "It completely demolished the trestle," says Kevin Worley, Abingdon's parks and recreation director. "It was like someone took a box of toothpicks and dropped them on the ground—that's what that section of trail looked like after the storm. I've been here 23 years, and I've never seen anything like that."

The downed trees were cleaned up and a detour constructed around the destroyed bridge, allowing the popular trail to re-open to through traffic less than two months later. Several hundred thousand dollars were spent on the initial cleanup, Worley estimates, and it may cost as much as $2 million to replace the bridge. Fortunately, the town had an insurance policy for the trail, which officials hope will pay for a new bridge. If all goes according to plan, a new structure will be in place within a year or so, Worley says.

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Twisters in Massachusetts

A rare tornado roared through Springfield and took down
trees along the Connecticut Riverwalk.

How bad was the weather this year? So bad that the most destructive series of tornados to hit New England in more than two decades didn't come close to cracking the list of the year's 12 worst weather catastrophes.

But don't tell residents of Springfield, Mass., that they didn't suffer a major disaster. The worst of the twisters spawned on June 1 roared through the city with 160-plus-mph winds, bringing down hundreds of buildings, uprooting trees and killing three people.

The Connecticut Riverwalk and Bikeway was directly in the path of this twister. The 3.7-mile rail-trail parallels both the river as it winds through Springfield, and an active train line. The high winds brought down dozens of trees in the park, which not only blocked the bikeway, but destroyed or damaged large sections of the iron fences that separate the trail from the river.

City crews quickly moved in to clean up the downed trees because the park is viewed not only as an important recreational amenity for the city, but as a significant transportation corridor, Tully says. "The trail has been a great asset to the city of Springfield. It's something we want to continue to prosper, so we want to make sure it's available to our residents."

City officials are still working with FEMA to determine the cost and work out a timeline for repairing the bikeway's fencing, Tully says—a process complicated by another weather disaster that struck the city less than five months later, the "Halloween Blizzard" (see below).

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Deluge in the Heartland

Trail Manager Del Bischoff inspects flood damage along
Iowa's Heritage Trail.

Last year's weather catastrophes weren't confined to the eastern third of the country. A combination of heavy winter snows and persistent rainstorms led to floods from North Dakota to Louisiana in the spring and summer. The damage was so widespread and costly that the weather experts at NOAA divided the flooding into two separate events that each made it into the year's top dozen weather disasters: flooding along the Mississippi and its tributaries, and flooding along the Missouri and its tributaries.

The deluge kept Brian Preston, director of the Dubuque, Iowa, County Conservation Board, very busy this year. He manages a system of parks, wildlife areas and trails for the county, which borders the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa. The three riverfront parks he manages spent much of the spring and early summer underwater—destroying roads, trails, footbridges and camping spots.

By mid-July, the flood waters had receded and Preston figured he was through the worst of it. Then, on July 27, an epic downpour struck Dubuque—more than 15 inches of rain fell in one night. The Mississippi rose three feet in short order—but that wasn't the problem for Preston. It was the rugged valleys north of the city, where the Heritage Trail starts, running 27.5 miles west to the town of Dyersville.

The water cascading through and around these valleys washed out the crushed-limestone surfacing of the rail-trail; brought down trees, limbs and other debris; and took out one of the 33 historical railroad trestles along the path. "It was quite phenomenal the force the water had," Preston recalls. "The old wooden trestle couldn't withstand 15 inches of water—not a lot of modern structures could withstand that."

The damage was akin to pouring salt on an open wound, because Dubuque officials hadn't yet completed repairs to the trail from major floods in 2008 and 2010. County workers spent several months trying to clean up the rail-trail and construct a detour around the washed-out trestle; the full path just re-opened on December 30.

Preston estimates that the final tally for repairs to the Heritage Trail for the latest flood will be upwards of $500,000. He and other officials are working with FEMA to quantify the losses and qualify for federal funding to replace the bridge and finish other trail repairs, work he hopes will start in the spring. (FEMA will pay for 75 percent of the cost; the county and state will have to come up with the other 25 percent.) "Then I'd like to be out of the construction business for a while," he says, laughing. "Hopefully we're done with 15-inch rains."

In the neighboring state of Nebraska, Duane Westerholt with the state Game and Parks Commission had a relatively easy year. Flooding left one of the state parks along the Missouri River submerged for an extended period in the spring, but when the waters receded, everything was basically intact. But Westerholt is still coping with weather-related problems from the previous year.

Nebraska's Cowboy Trail still hasn't recovered from severe
flooding in 2010.

Heavy rains and flooding in May and June 2010 caused extensive damage to the Cowboy Trail, a 195-mile rail-trail stretching from Norfolk to Valentine. About 20 miles of the eastern section of the trail, which runs along the Elkhorn River, were damaged in the flood, and a century-old, 180-foot-long bridge was destroyed. "The whole Elkhorn River valley was completely flooded," Westerholt recalls. "I've never seen flooding like that before, it was just unbelievable."

Contracts have been signed to resurface the damaged section and replace the bridge, and Westerholt hopes that all the work will be completed by this summer. He estimates that the work will cost about $2.2 million, of which FEMA will pay 75 percent and other federal, state and local funding will cover the remainder.

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Hurricane Irene

Irene flooded many low-lying trails in the
Northeast, including portions of Philadelphia's
Schuylkill River Trail.

In late August, this powerful cyclone swept into North Carolina and moved up the East Coast, toppling trees and power lines and dumping torrents of rain. Ironically, the worst of the flooding occurred in New York, New Jersey and Vermont as the storm weakened. The human and economic toll of Irene was staggering, with 45 deaths and $7.3 billion in damages in more than a dozen states.

Trail users and managers throughout the Northeast posted photos and stories of the impacts on their trails. For example, sections of the Elephant Swamp Rail-Trail, a five-mile path in southern New Jersey, were washed out by flooding, according to an account posted on shortly after the storm. In Philadelphia, portions of the Schuylkill River Trail were inundated by water, debris and downed trees—and volunteers spent much of their Labor Day weekends working to clean up the mess and re-open the rail-trail.

Among the damage in Vermont, which suffered some of the worst flooding from the storm, was the Lamoille Valley rail-trail project. Parts of this planned 93-mile trail across the northern section of the state were washed out, adding about half a million dollars to the cost of the project, according to an account in a local newspaper. The Island Line in Burlington was fortunately spared from further harm. "We got no damage from Irene, because that damage was done mostly by [flooded] streams and rivers, and we don't have those along the Island Line," says Brian Costello of Local Motion.

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The Halloween Blizzard in the East

A rare October snowstorm brought down thousands of
trees and branches on Connecticut's Farmington
Canal Heritage Trail.

Just weeks after millions of people in the Northeast finally cleaned up and got their power restored from Irene, Mother Nature decided to wallop them again. In late October, unseasonably cold air joined forces with a powerful "Nor'easter" weather system to dump record amounts of snow from West Virginia to Maine. Parts of New England received more than 30 inches of snow, snarling traffic, bringing down trees and power lines and killing more than 30 people.

Among the many Northeastern trails impacted by the blizzard was the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, a partially completed 80-mile rail-trail along a historical canal running from New Haven, Conn., to Northampton, Mass. Bruce Donald, president of the Farmington Valley Trails Council, a nonprofit group supporting trail development and maintenance, calls the Halloween blizzard "the perfect storm." "The snow was so heavy it literally snapped trees in half, and they flopped over the trail," he says.

"It was a real mess—it was quite unbelievable," recalls Donald. "You couldn't go for 20 feet on the trail without tripping over something—in some cases, an enormous tree."

Donald, his teenage sons and dozens of volunteers spent weeks after the storm sawing up all the downed timber and moving it off the trail. Some of the towns along the trail sustained so much damage from the storm that they have still not been able to get crews out to remove this trailside detritus. In addition to finishing up this work, Donald says that miles of wooden fences along the Farmington trail will need to be restored, along with kiosks, benches and other trail infrastructure.

Ultimately, the clean-up and restoration costs for 30 miles of completed trail in northern Connecticut will run into the low seven figures, Donald estimates. Because the individual towns are responsible for their sections of the trail, he's not sure how costs will be allocated—but he hopes that federal and state money will be available. His group will spend much of 2012 fundraising for the trail-restoration effort, and hopes they can contribute several tens of thousands of dollars to the cause—along with their volunteer labor. He expects work will be ongoing through the spring.

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Most of the trail managers and advocates contacted by RTC were reluctant to comment on the larger forces behind last year's extreme weather, or speculate on what the future will hold weather-wise.

"I can't say for sure, but I can tell you that our weather isn't the same as it used to be," says Iowa's Preston. "There's much more frequent storm systems stalling out and dumping 10, 12, 15 inches of rain on us at a time. The frequency of these heavy downpours is just unreal."

"Beats me—I'm no meteorologist," says Connecticut's Donald. "But as a lifelong skier, I've noticed the weather is increasingly odd, there's no question about that."

"We've always had bad storms," says Alabama's Dionne. Severe weather "is just one of many things [a trail manager] has to deal with."

Nonetheless, some of them harbor concerns about the future. "That's the big question on everybody's mind—is this the new normal?" says Vermont's Costello. "Perhaps our flood was an ominous harbinger of the future."

Scientists say that, because of rising global temperatures, we can expect more years like 2011. In December, Jane Lubchenco, head of NOAA, said at a science conference in California that 2011 "is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come."

"With our changing climate, the nation must be prepared for more frequent extreme weather in the future," Jack Hayes, director of NOAA's National Weather Service, said in a video posted on the agency's website.

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Preparing for the Future

Trail managers are taking many steps to get ready for more bad weather. On Iowa's Heritage Trail, culverts have been improved, streambanks stabilized and deep-rooting native grasses planted alongside the path—steps to reduce both the amount and the impact of future stormwater runoff, Preston says. In addition, he points out that damaged wooden bridges are being replaced by modern concrete structures that are much more resistant to flood damage.

These efforts, which have been under way for several years, have been paying off, Preston says. "We've seen the amount of precipitation increase, but we've seen damage to our facilities decrease, which is a trend I like. There's no doubt in my mind that it's a wise investment."

In Vermont, trail advocates are investigating low-cost ways to minimize future erosion of the Island Line's causeway as they make repairs. "We plan on carefully placing the large marble blocks that form the base of the causeway with attention to wave action, as opposed to just haphazardly," says Costello. "We'd love to rebuild to a higher standard— but unfortunately the money from FEMA is just paying to put it back the way it was."

In Nebraska, officials are replacing some smaller bridges with low-water crossings. Westerholt explains that in places where streams only flow in the spring or after storms, it may be cheaper and more effective not to have a bridge that might end up being damaged in a flood. In several places like this on the Cowboy Trail, crews are simply grading the trail down to and directly across the stream bed.

In Virginia, Connecticut and elsewhere, trail managers are taking a much more proactive approach to tree-trimming and removal. "Some people in this area have cut all the trees around their homes down" in response to the damage from the April tornado, Worley says. Virginia Creeper rail-trail managers aren't going to that extreme, but where they notice trees near the trail that are leaning or questionable, they have cut those down.

Connecticut's Donald says, "There's this cult, 'No one can touch my beautiful trees.' That's going to have to change." In retrospect, he says the Farmington Canal trail's canopy was probably overgrown. "There hadn't been an imperative to cut back the canopy. You obviously can't clearcut the trail—you destroy its character. There's got to be a happy medium."

For Alabama's Dionne, who has also managed rail-trails in Maryland, prevention and planning are crucial for any trail manager. "If you're in an area that gets lots of rain, keep your storm grates and drainage pipes cleaned out. If you have trees, they need to be trimmed and maintained." And every trail should have an emergency plan in place for both natural and human-caused disasters, he emphasized.

But there's no way even the most conscientious manager could prepare for some of the extreme weather experienced in 2011, the trail experts say. "Some of the trees we lost [in the tornado] were 200-year-old trees and as big around as a school bus," says Worley. "I don't know how much you can do to prepare for something like that coming through."

"I don't think there's any way you can engineer your way out of a 15-inch rainstorm," says Preston. "The water has to go somewhere, and I can't get the trail high enough."

Preston has a simpler plan for 2012. "I'm rooting for a drought."

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