They probably laughed at Noah when he began preparing for the coming flood by building a really big boat. But for anyone who has lived through the destructive power of rising waters, the impacts are quite serious.
There are plenty of recent witnesses to the devastation storms cause—those in New Orleans who survived Hurricane Katrina, the residents of the Jersey Shore who are rebuilding after Super Storm Sandy and most recently, those in the Philippines who have seen a typhoon kill 10,000 or more.
Here on the New England coast, we have always taken comfort in the fact that the colder waters of the Gulf of Maine are likely to deflate most hurricanes. But such a passive approach eventually will be proven foolhardy.
One small wrinkle in coming to grips with the new atmospheric and oceanic reality lies in changes to the federal flood insurance program. A story in this issue of The Working Waterfront details the effort to have flood insurance premiums reflect the true cost of reconstruction. The rates for buildings constructed before the new codes went into effect have been subsidized. No more.
Ten years ago, a redevelopment proposal for a former sardine packing plant in Belfast included condos. Those living spaces had to be, according to floodplain rules adopted a few years before, some 10-feet above grade. The ground floor area could only be used for parking. There was some grumbling about those rules; was a 10-foot high storm surge really going to sweep up Belfast harbor?
Today, those rules are not questioned. There’s too much evidence that storms do the unimaginable.
The flood insurance premiums will hurt some waterfront building owners, and for that, we hope some remedy can be found. But there is a fairness to the concept of raising rates to reflect the actual costs of rebuilding storm- and flood-ravaged housing.
Municipal leaders might be tempted to balk at the new rules, but a better response is to use the new floodplain maps as the impetus to do comprehensive waterfront planning. With lots of public input—but not too much delay—towns and cities can craft visions of their working, recreational and commercial waterfronts that meet the new rules. Those visions also should include infrastructure to manage storm surge.
For its part, federal regulators ought to consider easing permitting hurdles for measures that might mitigate those big waves. When he pulled the plug on the state’s plan to build a container port on Sears Island in Searsport in the late 1990s, then Gov. Angus King wryly noted that the Rockland Breakwater would never have gotten permitted today. He was right, yet that breakwater will prevent a storm spinning westward from wrecking Rockland’s waterfront.
The refrain that’s heard from those who study the Earth’s rapidly shifting climate is not if, but when; rather than madly filling sandbags for that big storm that eventually clobbers Maine’s coast, let’s plan and prepare now.