Spring It On: Historic New England Floods

The last decade has seen historic, epic floods on New England rivers.

The last decade has seen historic, epic floods on New England rivers.

In May of 2006, the mighty Merrimack overflowed its banks higher than seen in generations, as up to 17 inches of rain pushed the water to levels not recorded since the flood of 1936, and the great New England hurricane of 1938.

Hundreds of New Englanders were forced to flee their homes, and as other rivers in central and northern New England swelled. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine declared a state of emergency. Just one year later, rivers in central New England would rise to historic stages again, inundated by heavy spring rains.

In 2010, focus shifted to Rhode Island and southeast Massachusetts where record flooding - the likes of which were previously described as 100 and 200 year floods - resulted from three successive nor'easters, dumping record monthly rainfall on southern New England. Here's the catch - none of these major flood events were prompted by rapid melting of snow - they were each the result of multiple inches of rain. The northeast river forecast center's ed capone says that's the classic flood setup.

With a record blitz of late January and February snow in New England this year, the big question we're hearing is: what could this mean for flooding? Make no mistake about it, there's plenty of water locked up in the snow.

Interestingly, all that water locked up in the snow doesn't always mean we'll see big floods - in fact, Capone can rattle off instances in our New England past that saw tons of snow…and barely any flooding.

How about the blizzard of 1978 - New Englanders saw higher snow piles and deeper snow than seen since that infamous February, and in many cases, winter of 2015 brought even deeper snow than was ever on the ground in '78.

Make no mistake about it- while tons of snow doesn't guarantee a spring flood, having all that water in the snowpack surely does result in an elevated flood potential, whether that potential is realized hinges on whether big rain-makers come calling. Based on this season's snow, however, forecaster Capone says there are a few areas to watch closely, which happen to be home to a lot of residents.

Regardless of how rivers respond, basement flooding, urban flooding, and stream overflow all can come from even moderate rainstorms when combined with melting snow.

And remember the 100 and 200 year floods? Capone let us know the inside baseball on these classifications - turns out, they're buzzwords used by those outside of science, not credible analysis.

So, our best bet is to hope for a continued gradual melt, be ready for ponding of water in our neighborhoods, regardless, have sump pumps at the ready for our basements, and check out floodsmart.gov, where you'll find a wealth of helpful information on flood insurance, an option for many homes that can cover homeowners from all types of flooding. 

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