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Park Prepares For Future Floods

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

National Park News

In 2003, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park completed an updated flood response plan. Due to rapid changes in climate and heavier rainfall, they have recently been engaged in a detailed update to this plan in order to be ready for the next flood event. 

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, has had 55 recorded floods since 1748.  According to the National Weather Service, the worst of them was in 1936 when the rivers crested at 36.5 feet; the highest in recent years occurred in 1996, when the crest reached 29.8 feet (click on this link for a summary of 43 recorded flood crests).  

Of the historic floods, nine occurred in March, six occurred in April and May, and five occurred in October. Interestingly, July is the only month with no recorded floods.  With the strange weather patterns the country has experienced recently, the question arises as to what is in store for Harpers Ferry this year?  Now that we are at the beginning of the traditional flood season, are we ready for it?

The National Center for Atmospheric Research’s “Current Extreme Weather and Climate Change” report states that “heat waves are longer and hotter” and that “heavy rains and flooding are more frequent.”  A recent USA Today article on this report quotes Jeff Masters of Weather Underground as saying that a warmer atmosphere has more energy and therefore contributes to the blizzards, droughts, and severe storms we have been seeing.  Masters concludes by saying that “years like 2011 may be the new normal.” 

Also quoted in reference to this report was Donald Wuebbles of the University of Illinois: “There’s really no such thing as natural weather anymore . . . anything that takes place today in the weather system has been affected by the changes we’ve made to the climate system.” 

Recognizing this new reality, staff at Harpers Ferry NHP are not sitting by idly waiting for the next flood. With the early weather events this year and the unknowns that this summer will bring, key staff members are looking carefully at the park’s flood response plan and using this plan to have discussions on what to do when the rivers again rise. 

Last year the park had a couple of close calls, beginning discussions on evacuating the museums along the two rivers – but luckily nothing came from these river rises. It’s only a matter of time, though, when park staff will have to implement this plan again to evacuate the ten museums located along Shenandoah Street as well as the Harpers Ferry Historical Association bookstore, which is one of the first buildings to be affected by flood waters. 

Through these discussions, park staff are actively looking at the areas potentially affected by the floods, assessing the time that it will take to evacuate these location as well as refreshing their memories on how the exhibits are constructed and ensuring that they may be disassembled carefully to protect any museum objects in the exhibit as well as protecting the exhibit panels and other exhibit aids. 

Park managers are also encouraging staff to become familiar with the incident command system (ICS). The park plans to use ICS when beginning evacuation procedures for any future flood events.  The ability to scale the operation up or down to assist the park in accepting and efficiently utilizing any assistance offered from either the community or other neighboring park units is the primary driver for the use of ICS.  With a little planning and training it is hoped that park staff will be able to efficiently act when the time comes to implement the park's flood response plan.  


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