‘There will be a next time’: Ludlow emergency management director gears up for future calamities

‘There will be a next time’: Ludlow emergency management director gears up for future calamities

LUDLOW — Sometime in the afternoon of July 9, Angela Kissell and her husband began knocking on doors in this southern Vermont town, telling residents to prepare for a possible evacuation. She’d been following forecasts of a storm that could bring as much as 5 inches of rain to Ludlow in the next two days, and the possibility of flash floods.

woman outside office building
Angela Kissell shown outside the Plymouth town offices on Monday, July 31. She is the emergency management director in Ludlow and the town clerk in Plymouth. Photo by Tiffany Tan/VTDigger

About 12 hours later, at 4:30 a.m. on July 10, Kissell joined other members of the Ludlow Fire Department in evacuating people from a manufactured home park as the Black River engulfed it.

And then, Kissell — who’d been Ludlow’s emergency management director for just two months — asked the municipal government to activate the Ludlow Community Center as an evacuation center.

Within the next 36 hours, dozens of people fled to local emergency shelters as Ludlow was pummeled by the statewide storm, momentarily becoming the storm’s epicenter. Some parts of Ludlow got nearly 8 inches of rain, which caused a massive mudslide downtown, spawned millions of dollars’ worth of damage to homes, businesses, roads, bridges and a state park, and temporarily cut off land access to and from the center of town.

Kissell, 48, said the experience underscored to her the need to come up with a more comprehensive plan for future emergencies in the town of 2,170 residents. “We learned so much,” she said, “that it’s just going to make us that much better for the next ones.”

Though she has been a firefighter in Ludlow since 2017, Kissell only became emergency management director on May 1. During that first day of the flooding, the learning curve was steep.

Stepping up preparations

Before moving to Ludlow with her husband in 2016, Kissell had built a career in mortgage and lending in New Hampshire. She joined the Ludlow Fire Department — where her husband was a firefighter — after seeing the need for more volunteers in a town with an aging population and with majority part-time residents. Only 10% of Ludlow homeowners lived there permanently.

At a Ludlow Selectboard meeting April 3, when Kissell formally expressed interest in becoming the town’s emergency management director, she pointed out that the local emergency operations team had not met in at least four years.

She also said the town had not addressed some emergency issues, such as opening a shelter during a storm last winter, and it needed an emergency director who would step up. She asked if Ludlow was prepared for an emergency.

The town’s longtime emergency management director, Ron Bixby, resigned on May 1. Kissell was appointed to the volunteer position on the same day.

In June, members of the town’s emergency operations team met to discuss their priorities, Kissell said. The following month, the flash floods came.

firefighters outside a couple of houses
Angela Kissell, far right, and her husband, Fran Kissell, second from left, with fellow Ludlow firefighters after responding to a call in February. Photo courtesy of Angela Kissell

Kissell said she didn’t immediately have answers to several pressing questions as the natural disaster unfolded: What kind of support did local emergency responders need? How could they search homes cut off by the flooding? How can town workers immediately assess road conditions?

“We had no policies or procedures in place … I had nothing to go by,” she said. “I felt like I was a little dependent on all these other people who’ve been in their roles much longer than I have.” But it was Kissell who was leading the town’s emergency operations team, which includes the fire and police chiefs, town manager and head dispatcher. 

Kissell said the local emergency management plan consisted mainly of lists, such as emergency contact personnel, shelter locations and town equipment. 

Ludlow’s emergency operations team is currently assessing its next steps. The municipal manager, Brendan McNamara, said members will be holding more debriefings on the flood response and reaction. 

“The plan will be tailored to what becomes of those meetings,” said McNamara, who was appointed to his position in April.

a man in a yellow raincoat walks through a flooded street.
Crews work to repair Pond Street, which is also Route 103, in Ludlow on Monday, July 10, 2023. A torrent of water, foreground, has cut off a northern gateway for the town. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

State Rep. Logan Nicoll, D-Ludlow, said he was satisfied with the town’s emergency response to the flooding. “I thought everything went as well as it could have,” he said. “It was a difficult situation.”

‘Two flood-zone towns’

Kissell balances her emergency management role in Ludlow with her day job as town clerk in neighboring Plymouth, where she also serves as a firefighter. She missed two office days because of her flooding response work.

“When I came back up here, I felt really overwhelmed,” Kissell said outside the Plymouth Town Office this week. “I feel like I’m in two flood-zone towns.”

male and female firefighters
Angela Kissell and her husband, Fran Kissell, are both firefighters with the Ludlow Fire Department. Photo courtesy of Angela Kissell

A portion of Plymouth, which is located about 10 miles north of Ludlow, was battered by 9 inches of rain during the July storm, according to data from the National Weather Service. Several homes were damaged and some culverts were washed out, but Kissell said local roads and bridges took the hardest hit: $3.36 million worth of necessary repairs.

In the flooding aftermath, shel said, Plymouth residents have been calling her office to ask which damaged roads have been reopened and where to get test kits to check their well water. Others, with tax season upon them, inquired about their property tax bills.

But being the emergency management director in Ludlow has helped her gain knowledge that has come in handy at the clerk’s office. For instance, in Ludlow, she developed a list of emergency contacts and resources — with the state government, Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency — that she has shared in Plymouth.

Kissell said she sees a lot of work ahead as Ludlow’s emergency management director, but the July flooding gave her a crash course. She plans to write a step-by-step evacuation plan, gather supplies for emergency shelters in advance and prepare resources to guide residents in the post-calamity recovery.

“We’ll be better next time,” she said, “because there will be a next time.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: ‘There will be a next time’: Ludlow emergency management director gears up for future calamities.

The case of the Colorado River’s missing water

In the East River watershed, located at the highest reaches of the Colorado River Basin, a group of researchers at Gothic’s Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) are trying to solve the mystery by focusing on a process called sublimation. Snow in the high country sometimes skips the liquid phase entirely, turning straight from a solid into a vapor. The phenomenon is responsible for anywhere between 10% to 90% of snow loss. This margin of error is a major source of uncertainty for the water managers trying to predict how much water will enter the system once the snow begins to melt. 

Although scientists can measure how much snow falls onto the ground and how quickly it melts, they have no precise way to calculate how much is lost to the atmosphere, said Jessica Lundquist, a researcher focused on spatial patterns of snow and weather in the mountains. With support from the National Science Foundation, Lundquist led the Sublimation of Snow project in Gothic over the 2022-’23 winter season, seeking to understand exactly how much snow goes missing and what environmental conditions drive that disappearance.

Project lead Jessica Lundquist stands inside a freshly dug snow pit near Gothic’s Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory outside of Crested Butte, Colorado.
Bella Biondini

“It’s one of those nasty, wicked problems that no one wants to touch,” Lundquist said. “You can’t see it, and very few instruments can measure it. And then people are asking, what’s going to happen with climate change? Are we going to have less water for the rivers? Is more of it going into the atmosphere or not? And we just don’t know.”

“Are we going to have less water for the rivers? Is more of it going into the atmosphere or not? And we just don’t know.”

The snow that melts off Gothic will eventually refill the streams and rivers that flow into the Colorado River. When runoff is lower than expected, it stresses a system already strained because of persistent drought, the changing climate and a growing demand. In 2021, for example, snowpack levels near the region’s headwaters weren’t too far below the historical average not bad for a winter in the West these days. But the snowmelt that filled the Colorado River’s tributaries was only 30% of average.

“You measure the snowpack and assume that the snow is just going to melt and show up in the stream,” said Julie Vano, a research director at the Aspen Global Change Institute and partner on the project. Her work is aimed at helping water managers decode the science behind these processes. “It just wasn’t there. Where did the water go?” 

As the West continues to dry up, water managers are increasingly pressed to accurately predict how much of the treasured resource will enter the system each spring. One of the greatest challenges federal water managers face — including officials at the Bureau of Reclamation, the gatekeeper of Lake Powell and Lake Mead — is deciding how much water to release from reservoirs to satisfy the needs of downstream users. 

While transpiration and soil moisture levels may be some of the other culprits responsible for water loss, one of the largest unknowns is sublimation, said Ian Billick, the executive director of RMBL.

“We need to close that uncertainty in the water budget,” Billick said. 


Right, Eli Schwat records his observations. The team set up more than 100 instruments in an alpine meadow just south of Gothic to measure the processes that drive snow sublimation.
Bella Biondini


Doing it right 

The East River’s tributaries eventually feed into the Colorado River, which supplies water to nearly 40 million people in seven Western states as well as Mexico. This watershed has become a place where more than a hundred years of biological observations collide, many of these studies focused on understanding the life cycle of the water. 

Lundquist’s project is one of the latest. Due to the complexity of the intersecting processes that drive sublimation, the team set up more than 100 instruments in an alpine meadow just south of Gothic known as Kettle Ponds. 

“No one’s ever done it right before,” Lundquist said. “And so we are trying our very best to measure absolutely everything.”  

Throughout the winter, the menagerie of equipment quietly recorded data every second of the day — measurements that would give the team a snapshot of the snow’s history. A device called a sonic anemometer measured wind speed, while others recorded the temperature and humidity at various altitudes. Instruments known as snow pillows measured moisture content, and a laser imaging system called “Lidar” created a detailed map of the snow’s surface.  

“We are trying our very best to measure absolutely everything.” 

From January to March, the three coldest months of the year, Daniel Hogan and Eli Schwat, Ph.D. students who work under Lundquist at the University of Washington, skied from their snow-covered cabin in Gothic to Kettle Ponds to monitor the ever-changing snowpack. 

Their skis were fitted with skins, a special fabric that sticks to skis so they can better grip the snow. The two men crunched against the ground as they made their near-daily trek out to the site, sleds full of gear in tow. It was a chilly day in March, but the searing reflection of the snow made it feel warmer than it was. When Hogan and Schwat arrived, they dug a pit into the snow’s surface, right outside the canopy of humming instrumentation.


Daniel Hogan and Eli Schwat tow a sled of gear out to the Kettle Ponds study site this March.
Bella Biondini


The pair carefully recorded the temperature and density of the snow inside. A special magnifying glass revealed the structure of individual snowflakes, some of them from recent storms and others, found deeper in the pit, from weeks or even months before. All of these factors can contribute to how vulnerable the snowpack is to sublimation. 

This would be just one of many pits dug as snow continued to blanket the valley. If all of the measurements the team takes over a winter are like a book, a snow pit is just a single page, Hogan said.

“Together, that gives you the whole winter story,” he said, standing inside one of the pits he was studying. Just the top of his head stuck out of the snowpit as he examined its layers. 

Lundquist’s team began analyzing the data they collected long before the snow began to melt. 

They hope it will one day give water managers a better understanding of how much sublimation eats into the region’s water budget — helping them make more accurate predictions for what is likely to be an even hotter, and drier, future.

The wind tears snow from the top of Gothic Mountain. Wind is one of many factors driving snow sublimation.
Bella Biondini

Bella Biondini is the editor of the Gunnison Country Times and frequently covers water and public lands issues in western Colorado. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.