2014-09-18 / News

Panel says Maine towns not ready for big storm

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

Cathy Stackpole, executive director of the Ferry Beach Park Association (standing), speaks in a panel as part of “The Sandy Dialogues,” a series of events held last week to tell Maine residents about what can be learned from the experience of New Jersey residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. (Ben Meikejohn photo) Cathy Stackpole, executive director of the Ferry Beach Park Association (standing), speaks in a panel as part of “The Sandy Dialogues,” a series of events held last week to tell Maine residents about what can be learned from the experience of New Jersey residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. (Ben Meikejohn photo) SOUTHERN MAINE – When a group of residents from Saco, Old Orchard and Wells traveled to New Jersey last spring to learn how communities were recovering from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the biggest Atlantic storm in recorded history, they soon questioned whether Maine’s coastal towns are really prepared for a similar natural occurrence.

A panel that included the Maine residents who went on the trip and New Jersey officials gave a presentation Friday, Sept. 12 at the Ferry Beach Park Association in Saco on how to better prepare for hurricane floods. The presentation was part of a series of events called “The Sandy Dialogues”—four events held last weekend to raise awareness about what lessons Maine residents can take away from the experience of New Jersey residents.

Tim Mueller, president of Save Our Shores, an organization working to protect Camp Ellis and Ferry Beach in Saco, said even though the group visited New Jersey 18 months after Hurricane Sandy, communities were still recovering.

“We found that the individuals and communities that were prepared were faring better and recovering more quickly,” Mueller said. “We didn’t want to have to keep learning from that kind of disaster. We’re not at the beginning or the end of the conversation, we’re somewhere in the middle.”

Mueller said the coastal communities have so much economic impact on the state, that if a hurricane of Sandy’s magnitude were to strike Maine, it would “ripple through the whole state.”

Ferry Beach Park Association Executive Director Cathy Stackpole said the visit to New Jersey humbled her about flood preparedness in Maine.

“Everything they told us when we went down there, we’re not really doing here in Maine,” Stackpole said. “We have a very private relationship about our property.”

After the Patriots Day storm in 2007 took 15 to 20 feet of dunes from Saco’s coastline, Stackpole said the city tried to rebuild the shores but couldn’t get all the permits and not all property owners cooperated.

Last year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed an executive order allowing property to be seized by eminent domain from owners who would not cooperate in granting easements to help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build protective coastal dunes.

Loretta Hoglund said her family has owned cottages for 60 years that are four blocks away from the ocean, at Drakes Island Resort in Wells.

“In 60 years, stormwater has never got close to our house,” Hoglund said.

She never even thought flooding was a concern for her properties until she traveled to New Jersey.

“Buildings and houses that were half a mile away from the ocean had water come through,” Hoglund said. “The rules are changing. Sea levels are rising. You can see it on Drakes Island. You can’t just hope for the best.”

Although her cottages are raised four feet, and above the required base flood elevation levels, Hoglund said in one of the buildings, the furnace, oil tank and electrical connections are in the basement, which would fill up with water in a Hurricane Sandy-level storm.

“I won’t be able to call contractors because everyone else will need to get some things done, too,” she said.

Stackpole said the New Jersey experience can be a valuable one to learn from, but it can be difficult to get officials in Maine to take flood-preparedness seriously. With all the problems Saco has had with shoreline erosion, Stackpole said she was surprised that not one city staff person or elected official accepted an invitation to join the group on their learning expedition.

Old Orchard Beach Code Enforcement Officer Dan Feeney, who is also the town’s flood official, said after going with the group to Tuckerton, New Jersey, a township hit hard by the storm, he realized how hard Old Orchard Beach would be affected by such a storm.

“Tuckerton lost 400 structures in one day. Old Orchard Beach has the potential of losing 1,500 in a comparable storm,” Feeney said. “If there was a storm surge of 3 feet, it would cross East and West Grand avenues. Ocean Park gets hit every time. A three-foot storm surge would be up to the top of first- floor windows.”

Feeney said he recently decided to try following the town’s evacuation route and realized that it ended at Route 1, parts of which might be under water during a super storm disaster

According to Elissa C. Commins, engineer and flood plain manager for the Township of Brick, New Jersey, water did not recede until 48 hours after the storm. A bridge was also destroyed, which made it difficult to get to the township’s Barrier Island to rescue people who didn’t leave.

“When there’s a mandatory evacuation and you choose not to evacuate, you won’t believe how much tax resources it takes,” Commins said. “On Barrier Island, police went door-to-door and told people to leave. If they refused, they spray-painted the door with the number of people inside.”

Commins said the island was so devastated that residents were required to leave after the storm and couldn’t return until January except for two times – once to get valuables, and another time to go with contractors to assess damages.

The most difficult thing post-Sandy, said Commins, was trying to establish normalcy again – getting power back, schools opened, businesses opening and people back in their homes.

“The schools were used as emergency shelters, so it’s hard to get kids back in school when there are homeless people in them,” Henry said. “It’s substantially scarring and draining to see your life on the curb in front of your house.”

Henry said on average, it takes 17 years to recover money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“They just closed Hurricane Andrew 22 years later,” she said. “Document everything. They’ll ask you, ‘What’s the VIN of the car? What were you doing that day?’ and you’re like, ‘What? Huh?’”

Commins said most of the houses that were built on pylons were the only ones that survived the storm, and the towns that had the bonding capacity to fund emergency rebuilding recovered much faster.

“If you’re waiting for FEMA, recovery can take a decade to 15 years,” she said.

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