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Could Southwest Michigan see flooding on the scale of Montpelier, Vermont?

A man sits in the front of a white canoe piloted by a woman who sits behind him as she paddles through the flooded streets of Montpelier, Vermont. They are passing in front of a gray Toyota SUV on a concrete ramp connected to a brick building.
Steven Senne/AP
Jodi Kelly, left, practice manager at Stonecliff Veterinary Surgical Center, behind, and her husband, veterinarian Dan Kelly, use a canoe to remove surgical supplies from the flood-damaged center, Tuesday, July 11, 2023, in Montpelier, Vt. The supplies included orthopedic implants for an upcoming surgery on a dog. A storm that dumped two months of rain in two days brought more flooding across Vermont Tuesday.

Images of people kayaking through Montpelier's downtown have raised questions about the flood risk elsewhere.

It’s a reasonable thing to worry about, said Western Michigan University emeritus geology professor Duane Hampton. Hampton said the frequency and severity of floods will increase in coming years due to climate change.

“What used to be 100-year flood is now more like a 50-year flood. The odds are increasing of extreme events,” Hampton said. “As temperatures go up, there's more water in the atmosphere, which means rainfall event — severe rainfall events are more frequent.”

However, Hampton said the difference in terrain between mountainous Vermont and not-so-mountainous Southwest Michigan would make a flood event on the scale of Montpelier unlikely here.

Although we may not see a Vermont-style flood, Cass County Drain Commissioner Jeff VanBelle said the increasing frequency of high-intensity rain events has led to an increased emphasis on flood prevention infrastructure.

“We're having to increase the size of pipes, we're having to increase stability of structures, because if they become inundated, they can get swept away,” VanBelle said.

“I'm not aware of any drain commissioner in this state that when they're doing a project isn't saying, hey, maybe we better oversize this a little bit.”

When it comes to Cass County’s ability to meet this increasing risk, VanBelle said that while he believes that while a prolonged severe rainfall would pose a problem, the county is prepared for most flooding events.

Michael Symonds reports for WMUK through the Report for America national service program.

Report for America national service program corps member Michael Symonds joined WMUK’s staff in 2023. He covers the “rural meets metro” beat, reporting stories that link seemingly disparate parts of Southwest Michigan.