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

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

It’s because of that penny-pinching instinct that Merrill has high hopes for his approach, even if state leadership is missing. He’s not the only one who found demand for Catalysis-like services to be high: A Maine Sea Grant and UMaine Cooperative Extension report found in the summer of 2011 that “coastal property owners want to take action, but don’t know which strategies are most effective.” The options were laid out in an 85-page booklet comprehensively compiling the possible actions (including a wide range of protection options for beaches, sea bluffs, and coastal wetlands),  with little direction on how to sort through the possibilities, or what to do if your neighbor had already started some sort of adaptation work next door.

And there are even more possibilities down the road, Merrill says, modeling other potential disasters, such as fire or drought — anything that can be simulated mathematically. As Merrill sardonically puts it, he’s working hard at “helping society figure out how to get out of harm’s way in the least bloody manner.” 

*Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the name of the Brazilian town where Catalysis is working.

The Kingston example
Kingston, New York, is a city of about 25,000 people 90 miles north along the Hudson River from New York City. In 2011, the city was flooded from massive downpours in Hurricane Irene. Then in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit, driving water levels up (the Hudson is tidal for another 60-plus miles upriver) and knocking out the local sewage-treatment plant.

Gregg Swanzey, the city’s director of economic development and strategic partnerships, says that led the mayor in December 2012 to create a large task force to help the town prepare for the uncertain future. That included hiring Catalysis Adaptation Partners to model the future and help with the community discussions. As Catalysis’s Sam Merrill points out, the cash-strapped federal and state governments can’t be counted on to do prevention, or even rescue. Towns and cities have to take this into their own hands.

“We have to have the hard conversations. It’s better than not if we’re all going to get wet,” Merrill says.

Most residents, Swanzey says, had one of two responses: “Don’t talk about it, or put a big wall up.” But seawalls aren’t often the real answer in waterfront communities. They might block water from entering commercial areas, but they also block people’s access to the water. Waterfront property owners, whether residential, commercial, or industrial, have large investments whose value is tied to water access.

During a series of meetings in the community, people were able to talk about ways they might prepare for more water, including seeking innovative building designs, such as those that can withstand flooding, or that float. Swanzey himself is in charge of seeking grants to help the city plan for moving the sewage plant, as well as other aspects of adaptation.

“People tend to look at what we have now and they want to protect what we have now,” Swanzey says, but notes it’s important to look at other alternatives that might be more workable solutions.

Reports, and more reports
The data is out there, and has been for years. But the conversations about what needs to be done next are not happening. Here are just some of the Maine-related documents that have been prepared by government, academic, and advocacy organizations in the past four years alone.

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