VINS Sponsors a Short Documentary on the Science Behind Irene Flooding

The short film "The Last Irene: Where Did All the Water Come From?" will be screened at Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vt., on Aug. 24, 2013, at 7 p.m. (NASA photograph)

The short film "The Last Irene: Where Did All the Water Come From?" will be screened at Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vt., on Aug. 24, 2013, at 7 p.m. (NASA photograph)

For many Vermonters, Tropical Storm Irene was an event that affected them personally. Most of the films and writing to emerge from those experiences are likewise deeply personal.

But a team of filmmakers from the Upper Valley will debut a short film Saturday at the Vermont Institute for Natural Science in Woodstsock that connects the personal stories of the August 2011 flooding that devastated Vermont to the larger impersonal forces that shaped the storm — the climate.

The 20-minute film, The Last Irene: Where Did All the Water Come From?, ties the experience of Irene on the ground to the science behind it, said John Dolan, VINS’ president.

The aim, Dolan said, was to provide “environmental education for a general audience about meteorological events and climate change, and we focused on Tropical Storm Irene.” VINS partnered with West Hartford resident Cathleen Geiger, who’s a sea ice geophysicist at the University of Delaware, Peter Malsin, a climate change educator from Hanover, and Barnard filmmaker Teo Zagar. They made the film under the auspices of a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The main challenge the filmmakers faced was to make a film that focused on the facts and steered clear of the toxic politics around the issue of climate change.

“There’s just a stigma connected with that term that makes it very difficult to talk about,” Geiger said. She prefers the term “climate transition.” The filmmakers wanted to use “clear, truthful language,” and to present the facts without sullying them with politicized language, she said.

“(Climate change) has become something of a slogan that too often closes off further discussion and even further thinking, said Malsin, who wrote the film’s script. “I suspect that people are weary of the phrase rather than the subject itself, which can be endlessly fascinating.”

The Last Irene brings together the voices of area homeowners, farmers and business people who were affected by the flooding. The film includes interviews with Vermont’s state climatologist Lesley-Anne Dupigny-Giroux and Dartmouth College geography professor Frank Magilligan, who discuss both the climate and the long-term impact of Irene on the state. The title refers to the retirement of Irene as a name for future hurricanes.

During the filming, Geiger was on hand at the interviews as the production’s in-house scientist, both to pose questions and to help Malsin and Zagar navigate a very technical conversation. She also helped keep the interviews grounded in the facts.

Broadly speaking, the facts are these: The climate has become warmer, and at the same time weather has become more extreme. Looking at the big picture reveals that “2011 was just a horrendous year for everybody,” Geiger said. In addition to Irene, fires, drought and flooding took a toll on locations around the globe. The following year, Hurricane Sandy followed a path inland from the Atlantic Ocean that hadn’t been seen before.

Irene was a challenging time for Geiger personally. “I’m a resident of West Hartford and my family was isolated for three days during Irene while I was over working in Germany,” she said.

The film also compares Irene to the flood of 1927, and considers its influence on the region’s environment.

Filmmaking is a departure for VINS, an attempt to extend the center’s reach. “This is a kind of proof of concept of an approach we’d like to take to inform the public about different aspects of environmental science,” Dolan said. VINS has already received a request from a middle school in the Bronx borough of New York City to use the Irene film in science classes. Such details as how the film will be distributed and what schools might pay to use it haven’t been worked out yet, Dolan said.

While Irene was destructive, Dolan said, “it showed a really great side of Vermont.” Communities banded together to clear roads, clean out homes, serve meals and begin the long and still unfinished work of rebuilding and making river valleys more resilient in the event of another major flood.

“I think it will be, for the community members who come out to see it, not just an informative but an uplifting experience,” Dolan said.

VINS will screen “The Last Irene: Where Did All the Water Come From?” Saturday evening at 7 at the nonprofit nature center on Route 4 in Quechee. The screening is free, but there’s a suggested donation of $10 at the door. Refreshments will be served, and there will be a panel discussion with Dolan, Geiger, Malsin and Zagar after the film.