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Maine Starts to Prepare for Storms, Climate Change

"You just pray your entire livelihood doesn't float off. The anxiety of that day is coming back. It was a very frightening thing to watch. We had just rebuilt our wharf, raising it over a foot.”

Maine state border sign
Shutterstock/Paul Brady Photography
(TNS) - Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order Tuesday that created a new Infrastructure Rebuilding and Resilience Commission to help Maine recover from a string of winter storms and prepare for the long-term impacts of climate change.

Within hours of its creation, the 24-member board held its first meeting in Stonington, Maine's most lucrative lobster port, whose working waterfront, public roads and connecting causeway were battered by the wind, waves and storm surges of January's back-to-back storms.

Travis Fifield, a fourth-generation lobsterman and local selectman, recalls using chains, rocks and $50,000 forklifts to anchor his family's fishing wharf after the first January storm. He was afraid the second one would wash the $400,000 rebuild away altogether.

"You just pray your entire livelihood doesn't float off," Fifield told the commission. "The anxiety of that day is coming back. It was a very frightening thing to watch. We had just rebuilt our wharf, raising it over a foot, taking climate change into account, but it just wasn't enough."

Fifield said he hopes this winter's storms have convinced even skeptical Mainers that climate change is real and persuaded communities across the state to prepare for what is coming quickly, before the next damaging storm, drought or heatwave strikes.

Stonington has been planning for the impacts of sea level rise since 2012, said Town Manager Kathleen Billings. The town was trying to find the money to implement some of the recommendations in a vulnerability study conducted by a town-hired consultant when the winter storms hit.

She estimates it will cost $8 million to $10 million to repair Stonington's storm-damaged infrastructure.

"I can only tax people so much," Billings said. "The school budget is up with inflation. The county budget is up with inflation. You can only get so much from your taxpayers. That presents a problem. This climate change stuff isn't going to go away and we just can't keep up."

The winter storms caused an estimated $90 million in damage to public infrastructure, ranging from Kittery to Eastport and inland to collapsed roads and culverts of the western mountains, according to state claims made to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And 2,500 people applied for federal disaster relief for individual losses by the Monday deadline.

The commission plans to travel around the state to hear from storm-ravaged communities to see how the state can help those whose needs do not fit neatly into federal disaster relief categories, like the dozens of privately owned docks that prop up Maine's $1.5 billion lobster industry.

Mills thought it fitting to sign the executive order that created the commission at the Stonington Lobster Co-op. Before the start of the summer lobster season, it had to rebuild the dock she stood on Tuesday morning. The co-op will replace the temporary dock with a permanent one in January.

"My ancestors fished and went out to sea and risked their lives and worked here in Stonington," Mills said Tuesday. "I know how important it is for our coastal communities to survive and to thrive. It's important to our economy. It's important to our culture, to our very identity as a people and as a state."

The commission is comprised of 24 members appointed by Mills from local and state government, industry, and the rebuilding and resiliency fields, including construction, engineering, floodplain management, utilities, financing, emergency response and climate science.

The board must report on short-term rebuilding priorities focused on storm recovery and preparation by November, and craft a long-term resilience plan for extreme weather and other climate-driven disasters, including drought and excessive heat, by next May.

The committee will be led by Linda Nelson, Stonington's economic and community development director and a Deer Isle resident, and Dan Tishman of Port Clyde, a midcoast contractor with experience helping communities rebuild after disasters, including the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort in 2012.

The Gulf of Maine has risen about 7.5 inches over the last century, with about half of that happening since the 1990s. The Maine Climate Council projects seas will rise another 1.1 to 3.2 feet by 2050 and 3 to 9.3 feet by 2100, depending on how much we curb global emissions rates.

And that doesn't include storm surge, which is what many people who rely on Maine's 20 miles of working waterfront — out of 3,200 miles of coastline — say caused the most damage during the January storms, wiping out the pilings that underpin so many of the docks, wharves and piers.

How does climate change affect sea levels? In a warming world, glaciers and ice sheets are melting, adding water to the ocean. The ocean also expands in volume as the water warms. Ocean circulation patterns, terrestrial water storage and the gravitational effects of glaciers also play a small role.

Gulf of Maine sea levels are projected to rise faster than the global average because it is susceptible to changes in the Gulf Stream and seasonal wind patterns, according to the Island Institute, a Rockland-based nonprofit that serves Maine's coastal communities.

The climate council projections are coastwide estimates, but each coastal community has its own rate of sea level rise, controlled largely by geology. Since 1993, Bar Harbor and Portland seas have risen at a rate of just over a foot per century, records show, while Eastport's seas have risen 1.3 feet.

Mainers don't have to imagine what storms like the ones we had last winter will do to Maine's future coastline. The state has mapped out how much of it will be lost to rising sea levels under different scenarios, in different years, and what future storms could do to that which remains.

A 1-foot increase in sea level by 2050 will lead to a 15-fold increase in the frequency of nuisance flooding, which is daytime or high-tide flooding that happens absent a storm. It would cause a "100-year storm" flood level to have a probability of occurring once every 10 years.

The state has yet to produce maps that show the impact of future storms of various strengths on different parts of the Maine coast, much less the potential damage of wave impact. But the surges like those experienced last winter can add 3 to 4 feet of additional water on top of the rising seas.

©2024 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.