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Searching for a Cause: Film Examines Irene's Impact

  • Viewers from left, Hans Mueller of West Hartford, Betty Iliescu of White River Junction, her husband Daniel, and their daughter Emma, and Madeline Boughter of Hanover, recap the events of Tropical Storm Irene while watching the short film "The Last Irene: Where Did All The Water Come From?" at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover, N.H., Sunday, February 9, 2014. The film examines the causes of the storm, its effects on the Upper Valley and the response by Vermont residents.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Viewers from left, Hans Mueller of West Hartford, Betty Iliescu of White River Junction, her husband Daniel, and their daughter Emma, and Madeline Boughter of Hanover, recap the events of Tropical Storm Irene while watching the short film "The Last Irene: Where Did All The Water Come From?" at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover, N.H., Sunday, February 9, 2014. The film examines the causes of the storm, its effects on the Upper Valley and the response by Vermont residents.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Cathy Geiger, of West Hartford, a research associate professor at the University of Delaware, left, and Peter Malsin, of Hanover, a climate change educator, right, take questions after a screening of their film "The Last Irene: Where Did All The Water Come From?" at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover Sunday, February 9, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Cathy Geiger, of West Hartford, a research associate professor at the University of Delaware, left, and Peter Malsin, of Hanover, a climate change educator, right, take questions after a screening of their film "The Last Irene: Where Did All The Water Come From?" at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover Sunday, February 9, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Viewers from left, Hans Mueller of West Hartford, Betty Iliescu of White River Junction, her husband Daniel, and their daughter Emma, and Madeline Boughter of Hanover, recap the events of Tropical Storm Irene while watching the short film "The Last Irene: Where Did All The Water Come From?" at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover, N.H., Sunday, February 9, 2014. The film examines the causes of the storm, its effects on the Upper Valley and the response by Vermont residents.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Cathy Geiger, of West Hartford, a research associate professor at the University of Delaware, left, and Peter Malsin, of Hanover, a climate change educator, right, take questions after a screening of their film "The Last Irene: Where Did All The Water Come From?" at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover Sunday, February 9, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Hanover — When a trio made up of a sea ice geophysicist, a self-employed climate change educator and a state representative-filmmaker set out to make an film about the roots of Tropical Storm Irene and the reasons for its devastation more than two years ago, they wanted it not only to be about numbers and facts and data, but about people and their stories.

“The key word here is perspectives,” Cathy Geiger, the geophysicist, who lives in West Hartford and works as a research associate professor at the University of Delaware, said in an interview Sunday. “There’s a richness that comes from another person’s perspective.”

The result is The Last Irene: Where Did All the Water Come From?, a 22-minute film that gives equal weight to the voices of meteorological experts and everyday Vermonters who experienced the devastating storm in August 2011, while exploring the effects of the storm and its connection to the global climate.

About 60 people turned out to Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover for a showing of the film on Sunday. It’s also viewable on YouTube by searching The Last Irene.

Attendees included Lindsay Wieland, who works with Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research in Colchester, Vt. Wieland connects educational faculty with students who can help with research projects, and suggested the film could be part of students’ training sessions.

“I think it’s a great way to answer the public’s questions, not only about what happened with Irene, but global climate change in general,” she said.

Mark Lewis, of Grantham, shared a similar perspective, suggesting that today’s youth should learn about climate change before it’s too late.

“I just think if the younger generation thinks that the next American Idol is more important than climate change, we’re in deep doo-doo,” he said.

Geiger worked with Teo Zagar, a filmmaker who owns Longshot Productions and serves as state representative from Barnard, and Peter Malsin, a Hanover-based climate change educator. Together they wrote a script, conducted interviews and gathered raw video footage from witnesses’ basic video cameras such as smart phones. They edited more than 100 hours of footage down to 22 minutes.

The film laid the foundation for Irene’s impact, including that 2 inches of rain had already fallen on the region before the storm hit, saturating the ground; that the storm hovered over southern Vermont, moving very slowly, for three hours; and that although forecasters accurately predicted the storm’s path, there was little publicity about the amount of moisture held in the clouds that would turn into torrential amounts of precipitation.

Filmmakers linked that excessive moisture to climate change, explaining that warm air holds more moisture than cold air. The film maps the storm’s path along a warm Gulf stream and shows the increasing temperature of the Atlantic Ocean in recent years.

The National Science Foundation provided $50,000 in grant funding to the University of Delaware and the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, which premiered the film in August. It was made into a DVD late last year, Geiger said, and has been showing at small community events ever since.

Interviews center around the Upper Valley and include insight from a Dartmouth College professor and people with ties to places such as West Hartford, Quechee, and Royalton, as well as Vermont’s state climatologist and an address by well-known climate activist Bill McKibben.

Geiger said it was important that interview subjects were not restricted to speak only to a certain subject. The state climatologist, Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, for example, spoke not only of scientific research, but also to the need for generations to communicate through stories.

Geiger also spoke to the ways that the film is fostering community discussion, which she said is necessary for the state to learn from the recovery effort. She pointed attendees to VTalert.gov, a website where residents can sign up for alerts in case of future emergencies, and said the state learned from instances where roadworkers accidentally damaged riverbeds by setting up training programs for road crews going forward.

Attendees crowded into a room at the back of the church to watch the film Sunday, many of them members of the Our Savior Lutheran Church congregation. Several others had traveled from other congregations in the area.

A few people held their hands to their mouths or rubbed their eyes and faces, grimacing at footage of cars and large propane tanks bobbing violently as they were swiftly carried down one river. Others craned their necks to see around the densely packed rows of seating.

During a Q&A session afterward, many encouraged the filmmakers to pursue their goal of spreading the film as an educational tool, particularly in schools, and to pursue an additional grant to expand the 22-minute film into a longer feature and to create a study guide for teachers.

“I felt it was very educational, learning how it started,” said Sally McFarlin, of West Lebanon. A parishioner of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in White River Junction, she found out about Sunday’s showing through the United Valley Interfaith Project, and was surprised to learn that much of Irene’s devastation was linked to the unusual amount of precipitation in the clouds.

“That was all new to me,” she said.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.