Extreme Weather: Flash floods in Georgetown (and a tornado?)

An unusually large and fierce mass of thunderstorms passed through midcoast Maine last Wednesday. My grandfather recorded 4.75 inches of rain in less than two hours, and small roads washed severely all over town. The stream that flows out of the small pond to the north of the orchard overtopped the road above the middle field, where it passes under the orchard road in a culvert, and a bunch of freshly placed coarse crushed stone washed downstream. Miraculously, the freshly planted middle field adjacent to the stream did not seem to suffer any visible erosion; perhaps it’s the soil, which is still springy with freshly composted sod, or perhaps the young roots of the buckwheat, less than 2 weeks old at the time, were enough to hold it together. The old part of the orchard has a bombproof sod by now, and the younger part is pretty well established with red clover under the pumpkins and this spring’s orchardgrass/timothy/clover treatment at the periphery, so the worst it saw was the windrow of wood chip mulch washed away in a couple of places. The freshly planted maples along the stone wall were more battered, as a sheet of water carrying leaves and small branches appeared to have swept broadly down the hillside, but the small fences we placed around them seemed to have borne the brunt of the assault, and though the young trees were in many cases buried in leaf matter, none seemed irredeemably tattered.

The most dramatic effect occurred where the pond outlet stream passed under the shore road in a 16″ steel culvert; directly after the storm there was no visible effect, but with the passage of a few vehicles over the weekend a yawning sinkhole a foot in diameter and three feet deep opened up right in the roadbed – it’s a wonder it didn’t swallow up somebody’s axle. The subterranean excavation extended most of the way across the road around and above the culvert, which was largely exposed as seen through the sinkhole – the bottom of the culvert must have rusted out, and this allowed water to run underneath it and undermine it. This was confirmed by the discovery of some rusty chunks of corrugated metal in the outwash below the road – a few more inches of rain and it would have been washed out entirely. My father and grandfather arranged to have the old culvert replaced with a larger 20″ plastic one – we determined that the old one had lasted over forty years.

More dramatic still, we got word that a small tornado or microburst had touched down on the opposite end of the island, and on my way out of town I poked down Bay Point road to check it out. Indeed, just past Don Wilson’s former chicken barn on the west side of the road, a swath of destruction lay down the side of a hill, with great stout oak trees uprooted or broken off rudely halfway up the trunk. Nearby some trees had been knocked over onto somebody’s trailer. Not being from tornado country, I have never seen the destructive aftermath of such a wild piece of weather.

As I understand it, climate scientists predict that global warming will lead to more frequent and more destructive extremes of weather, and while it’s of course impossible to attribute any one event to climate change, I can’t help but feel a bit under siege. I can take some measures of prudence – staking out the young apples and peaches, clearing trees away from the fence lines, keeping sod on the fields as much as possible; girding the streambanks and crossings with stonework – but all of this may be easily overcome, if it decides to rain 10 inches in one crazy storm, or if a ridiculous warm spell causes the buds to break in February. Perhaps we’ll gain some protection from our proximity to the ocean’s moderating influence, but for the most part our little farm faces in microcosm the same looming danger as the planet as a whole.

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