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Portland plans for action in the face of rising seas and bigger storms

 How wet will we get?
By JEFF INGLIS  |  October 14, 2013

Even when the data used in the models comes from major past disasters, Lockman notes that people often see the maps as best-case scenarios: “A lot of people have looked at the predictions and said, ‘We actually think reality will be worse than this.’”

That turns quickly into the fact that nobody can afford to deal with the risks themselves. Some people want help from the government, while others think government spending is already too high.

This leads to a community discussion among different values — not just about the role of government, but about whether taking action to protect a significant historic site might damage a nearby wetland (or vice-versa), Merrill says.

And that’s where the Portland Society for Architecture comes in. Back in May 2011 the PSA held its first community-wide conversations about sea-level rise, including talking about Back Cove, says Executive Director Carole Merrill (who is no relation to Catalysis’s Sam).

Building on the high level of interest in that process, the PSA hired Catalysis to look at what will happen if the ocean rises two feet by 2050 and four feet by 2100, as well as what storms may come our way.

 “We want to present the opportunities and challenges,” she says, which will start with Lockman’s presentation on November 7 at the city’s Ocean Gateway Terminal, followed by a talk by Susannah Drake, a New York City architect working on new designs in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The following morning, SPACE Gallery will host a series of roundtable discussions to consider options for different areas of the waterfront. A few days before, on November 1, SPACE will open a two-month show of maps showing “progressive inundation by rising waters over time” in Portland.

As those conversations evolve, policymakers will be listening carefully, says the planning department’s Needelman. “It’s a difficult conversation, as Hurricane Sandy has shown down south, with real consequences. It warrants a broad community conversation before we establish the policies.”

The PSA discussion will “help establish common understandings of where the risk is, and the language of adaptation,” he says.

Looking statewide
Unfortunately, Portland is doing this work mostly alone. Other towns around the state are doing similar work, but they’re not coordinating as much as they could be. This was predicted in a 2011 report from Clean Air Cool Planet: “Attention to climate preparedness in Maine has been present at the state level . . . However, there is concern that shifts in policy positions will negatively influence climate change adaptation efforts.”

Sure enough, the coastal adaptation plan the Maine Department of Environmental Protection submitted to the legislature in 2010 has been removed from the state’s website.

That report said the state “should develop a standardized set of criteria for assessing coastal communities and infrastructure for response and resilience to likely climate impacts, including a mechanism for evaluating vulnerability . . . (that) should be used to guide investments in infrastructure repair, protection, and land conservation and restoration.” Earlier this year, Republican Governor Paul LePage vetoed a bill to do exactly that, saying it wasn’t necessary.

But certain initiatives continue. Merrill is in fact working with the Maine Department of Transportation to evaluate options for bridge repairs and replacements. He’s examining alternative bridge designs — options with costs varying by millions of dollars — to see where those expenses will be most valuable. “It’s about fiscal efficiency,” Merrill says.

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