Lincoln and Conway: Recovery from Tropical Storm Irene

AnnMarie French

The late August visit from Tropical Storm Irene wrought particularly harsh impacts on a few New Hampshire communities but, for the most part, left much of the state relatively unharmed. Reported estimates for statewide damage to roadways totaled more than 150 state roads and approximately 475 local roads.

Two communities in the northern area of the state hit particularly hard anchor opposite ends of the scenic Kancamagus Highway. On the western side, the town of Lincoln's municipal infrastructure sustained costly damage and some residents were left isolated due to the loss of a bridge and other damaged roadways. Generally, Lincoln residents faced few serious personal impacts. Yet, travel 40 miles to the east along Route 112/Kancamagus Highway—which also sustained serious damage—to Conway, and the story is the reverse: minimal damage to municipal infrastructure but sheer devastation in the residential community of Transvale Acres.

Lincoln Town Manager Peter Joseph recalls the storm timing was, in some ways, perfect—striking just as the summer tourist season was drawing to a close and allowing for recovery efforts during the brief lull before foliage season.

On the night of August 28, the town's fire department was providing assistance in nearby Woodstock when Lincoln's public works director discovered there was a break somewhere in the water main. All available staff members were called in and, in the midst of a downpour, canvassed the area to locate the break, which was discovered in the area where the water main running underneath the river angles back up toward the bank. The system lost a great deal of pressure along with large amounts of water, impacting some 3,500 subscribers to the town water and sewer service. Efforts to restore water service began on Monday and the majority of subscribers experienced only a minor disruption.

Two of Lincoln's main bridges were impacted by the storm: the Loon Bridge and the South Mountain Bridge, which provides access to the town's municipal water treatment plant and to several hundred homes. While both bridges were closed due to high water at various points during the storm, the South Mountain Bridge experienced little damage.

The Loon Bridge was severely damaged by the flood waters, but still standing on Monday. As inspection teams began the engineering study on Tuesday, the erosion damage became clearly evident and officials began to lay a contingency plan to relocate the high-voltage power lines, T1 internet, cable and sewer lines carried underneath the bridge. All utilities were contacted and prepared to reroute service lines. Fairpoint located all communication lines for the town and quickly rerouted with no interruption to town lines. On Wednesday, the town was well prepared when additional portions of the river bank fell, resulting in the collapse of the bridge, including a 90-foot span of decking.

The Lincoln bridge repair project represents the most costly municipal repair project resulting from Irene. In such circumstances, communities in federally-declared disaster areas are eligible for FEMA funds to cover up to 75 percent of damage. Lincoln is hopeful these funds will come through. Additionally, the state has indicated that funding assistance may be available for 80 percent of the remaining costs, which, if the funds come through, would leave the town responsible for 5 percent of the project costs.

In Lincoln, some residents were isolated for a short period of time with only limited service interruption. Success was credited to the cooperation from the two resorts, which assisted with helping the town to communicate to resort residents, and from state officials.

"We didn't have the time to hesitate," said Joseph. "They [state officials] knew what the priorities were; this couldn't wait until November." The Highland Games, a major state tourism event, were set to begin September 16 and expected to bring more than 30,000 pedestrians across the bridge. This year, visitors attending the games crossed a temporary footbridge bridge set up just days before the event.

"The coordination and cooperation witnessed during the response to Tropical Storm Irene has been the key to the ongoing recovery," noted Joseph. "Our public works, police and fire departments received immediate support during and after the flooding event from state and federal officials, utility companies, local businesses, and homeowners. I hope this is a sign of continuing improvement in the emergency management field."

"Our public infrastructure faired pretty well," said Conway Town Manager Earl Sires, noting the exception of the river's adjacent recreation field, which sustained some flood damage. For the most part, Irene left Conway with some minor erosion to the shoulders of local roads.

It was an unusual flash flood, which began late Sunday afternoon as the Swift River quickly rose and created a dam to the Saco River, spilling over the banks and flooding low lying areas during the night that resulted in the greatest impact. By morning, the water had receded, leaving behind a trail of debris and destruction to some 125 residences and displacing 50-60 people. Flood waters were reported to have reached record heights, as evidenced by images of picnic tables snagged in trees and other unusual sights.

"State government has been very helpful and supportive," said Sires, noting visits from Governor Lynch as well as other state officials.

In the initial days following the flood, the town handled shelter services, until the Red Cross arrived to take over shelter assistance as well as provision of clean drinking water. For the most part, the town was primarily involved with debris removal, providing 30 dumpsters, which were quickly filled by AmeriCorp volunteers assisting residents with the cleanup. Many community members rose to the occasion to provide assistance as needed. "We greatly appreciated the support of local organizations in responding to this disaster," said Sires. By September 9, the Red Cross shelter had closed following the confirmation that all impacted residents had found alternate housing.

With its residents safe and secure, the town has turned its attention to ensuring that all property in the impacted area is in compliance with current laws and ordinances. "The area is a relic of time and history," noted Sires, adding that it will take time to unravel the status of many sites and work with current property owners to address various health and safety concerns.

Planning for the Future
In the wake of each passing storm, impacted communities can take little solace in the label of "100-year" or "500-year" flood, when faced with the destruction left behind and the costly repairs that follow. Preparing infrastructure to handle increased volume and pressure will be the key to minimizing future impacts.

"Irene was not a particularly powerful storm, but still managed to produce extensive damage in certain areas," said Joseph. "This should serve as a reminder to all of us about the crucial importance of emergency planning and preparedness."

AnnMarie French is a Communications Specialist for the New Hampshire Local Government Center. Contact AnnMarie at 603.224.7447, ext. 133.