Home Commentary We’re Not in Normal Anymore

We’re Not in Normal Anymore

Dan Jones. Courtesy photo.
As we enter the new year, and leave a frightening 2023 behind, it seems a good time to consider the local lessons of the past year and prepare for what comes next — at best a sobering prospect.

Perhaps 2023’s second flood should prompt us to consider seriously how the demands of the climate emergency are speeding up. Soon, to respond, we must make very uncomfortable choices, and some of those will be heart rending. During this most recent almost-100-year flood, some shop owner friends were overcome to again have rising water in their basements — with the potential loss of their heating systems in mid-winter. They admitted that their hearts were breaking and they didn’t know if they could face rebuilding again so soon, if ever.

We’re all thankful December’s flood did not peak high enough to destroy any of the recently reopened businesses. But the rising waters, only six months after July’s record devastation, have some of us quietly wondering about the wisdom of our Montpelier Strong rebuilding choices.

Just after this summer’s deluge I made some public warnings about rushing in to rebuild, for which my pessimism was roundly criticized. The public belief was that our merchants had no choice but to get up and running again so their businesses could survive and our downtown could return to normal. We all understand the economic need for stability and the emotional need provoked by this kind of one-two punch.

 But genuine sympathy doesn’t change the concern behind my warning. It’s foolish to ignore the probability of more flooding in the all-too-near future. To build local resilience, we rapidly need to start preparing for regular repetition of such events and other weather disruption as our climate crisis deepens.

We all suffer from a habit of mind called “normalcy bias,” which causes us to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and the severity of its effects. We fail to adequately prepare for disasters because we believe that our world will just continue as normal. Things always return to normal, don’t they?  On a larger scale, the normalcy bias manifests itself when government, in its disaster preparations, concentrates on returning infrastructure to the way it was instead of focusing on the well-being of dislocated people. 

 In the collective need for a return to normal, downtown Montpelier rapidly rebuilt itself after the summer flood. Back in August, local business owners, and the city government, convinced themselves that, like the dozen years since Tropical Storm Irene, we had at least that long before the next flood of consequence. 

 Even though climate scientists are predicting immense shifts in the frequency and power of weather events, most of us still can’t imagine that we don’t have plenty of time to create the promised green future that will save us.  A scarier future, sadly, is here already, and the “normal” we have known is a receding dream.

Our challenge now is to find the will, the resources, and the patience to start adapting our capital region to the demands of the new shifting reality.

The material presented here represents the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of The Bridge. Commentaries may be submitted to editor@montpelierbridge.com. Preference is given to submissions by those who live in central Vermont. Submissions are encouraged to be 500 to 750 words in length.