A howling storm, tidal surge, downed power lines, beaches swept away, coastal residents evacuated.  

Hurricane Sandy? 

Yes, but it is also the story of the Patriots Day storm of 2007 along the southern Maine coast.

Experts say both storms are harbingers of yet more severe storms to come, made worse by the effects of a warming climate.

The streets are dry and clear these days in Ocean Park, the 130-year-old enclave at the southern tip of Old Orchard Beach.

But on April 16 five years ago, they were submerged in up to 4 feet of seawater from a rising tide that rode across the village’s beach and wetlands and from a pounding rain, all of it trapped in the low-lying neighborhood.

“It was a harrowing experience,” recalled Dick Skillin, facilities and post office manager for the Ocean Park Association. “Water flooded the post office. The fire department had to come and take us out.”

Most of the scientific community accepts that climate change is having worldwide effects; its direct impact on Maine has also been the subject of scientific research.

“Maine’s Climate Future,” a 2009 report from the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine, reported: 

“For the 21st century, the models show a strong trend in Maine toward warmer conditions with more precipitation in all four seasons.”

The report concludes the rising temperatures in Maine threaten everything from tourism to farming and forestry and that the state must plan for those changes.

“Reducing human and ecosystem vulnerability to harm and increasing resilience in the face of change,” according to the report, “is both an economic and moral imperative.”

As Old Orchard Beach planner Gary Lamb told the Scarborough Leader in 2010, “If you transpose a 2-foot rise in sea level upon the area, every high tide would mirror the Patriot’s Day storm.”

How are state and local governments responding? 

Research by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting shows a patchwork of some communities taking action, while others are hanging back. 

Issue takes a ‘back seat’

On the state level, the work of former Gov. John Baldacci’s administration to develop specific ways for the state to help cities and towns cope with climate change has been halted and results of the initial work removed from the state’s website by the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.

“We made a conscious decision that (climate change) would take a back seat,” Darryl Brown, LePage’s first Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, said in an interview last spring. The DEP, its staff reduced by attrition, halted work on the climate change report in early 2011.

That unraveled the plan outlined by Baldacci, who told the scientists that their initial study would lead to a “framework” for state and local policies to cope with the effects of climate change.

That work began in 2007 when Baldacci commissioned the scientific study, which was completed in 2009.

The Legislature then passed a resolution ordering the DEP to lay out ways in which Maine could adapt to its new climate. 

The initial report was delivered to the Legislature in early 2010.  It was the work of 75 stakeholders, including Hannaford markets, the Maine Audubon Society, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine and 13 state agencies. The document set out 60 recommendations.

Acknowledging that the state’s communities would have to do the major work in preparing for climate change, the report was designed to give towns and cities support by making available, for example, accurate climate data specific to Maine. 

It also recommended that state agencies and municipalities work together to figure out how climate change will affect local buildings, roads and other structures — and how much it will cost.

And, the report said, that sort of planning would make it easier for the state to work with federal agencies to get the money to pay for such projects. 

Those concerns led Baldacci to sign a resolution calling for a second study to make more specific recommendations, along with cost estimates. That report, which was to constitute Maine’s official climate-change adaptation plan, was due to be presented in January of this year.

In January 2011, Baldacci, a Democrat, ended his term in office, and Republican LePage was sworn in. 

“We changed the focus dramatically,” said Brown, who was appointed LePage’s DEP commissioner that January and who resigned the following April after Attorney General William Schneider ruled that Brown’s former business interests made him ineligible to hold the job. 

The administration, Brown said, felt that the interests of Maine would be better served by making environmental regulations more friendly to business. 

Instead of presenting a plan in January 2012, new DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho gave the Legislature a two-page letter that referred to the 2010 report, adding, “The limited resources of all stakeholders should be targeted toward continued implementation (of the original report’s recommendations) rather than further document development.”

Aho acknowledged that the 2010 report was no longer on the DEP website. 

“We had to make a choice because we had thousands upon thousands of documents and we needed to reduce our website,” she said.

The DEP, she said, is still involved in initiatives related to climate change, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which seeks to reduce Maine’s emission of carbon dioxide; increasing industrial efficiency; and helping communities with culvert work.

But experts closely involved in the project see the state’s abandonment of the project as a loss.

Malcolm Burson, who served as the DEP’s Climate Adaptation program manager before his retirement in 2011, said one of the strengths of the now-missing 2010 report was that “it represented the beginning of a planning process.”

For now, the focus is on the work of some towns and cities to deal with climate change, he said. But, for example, all of Maine’s 3,500 miles of coastline are facing the effects of sea-level rise. 

“It’s probably a lot more efficient” to have a higher level of government looking at the problems and helping to coordinate the response to them, said Burson, now with the Conservation Law Foundation as a public policy adviser.

Andy Whitman is a director at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and took part in the climate report.  

“The biggest loss is not so much that the 2010 report was permanently shelved,” he said, “but that its reasonable way forward was discontinued. The project created a network that represented the diverse needs of local communities and the business community. With a sense of shared responsibility, key stakeholders created practical and sensible strategies to sparingly improve existing programs.

“This network ,” he said, “would have been a good springboard for dealing with the challenges of climate change in a no-nonsense way with broad political support. Instead, as it stands now, Maine’s communities and businesses will have to bear the burden of this lost opportunity.”

Sam Merrill, director of the New England Environmental Finance Center at the University of Southern Maine, said the work that towns and cities must do “needs support and coordination from the state.”

Without a state plan, he said, towns and cities are struggling to do what they can. He added, “People are getting it because they’re getting wet.”

The local response

In Saco Bay, which includes Ocean Park, Old Orchard Beach and Biddeford, officials in 2010 used a state grant to study the problem of rising sea levels.

Their “vulnerability” report issued in April 2011 came up with a stunning statistic: High tides combined with a rising sea level from a severe storm would cause $1 billion in damages and affect 2,400 structures.

The group came up with a “next steps” plan that includes building code improvements and better flood-plain management.

Peter Slovinsky, a coastal geologist who has worked with many of the towns, noted that Saco recently became the first town in Maine to change its flood-plain map to take into account future sea-level rise. 

Residents who want to build or rebuild in certain areas of town will have to put their new structures a full 2 feet higher than the original map allowed. 

Meanwhile, the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission hired an engineering firm to study what could be done about the threat of rising sea levels to Ogunquit’s wastewater treatment plant.

The plant sits on low land near the shoreline. For years, the plant and its pump stations have been flooded during major storms. 

The firm, Woodard and Curran, said the plant was at “high risk” of inundation over the next 20 to 30 years or sooner if flooding increases more rapidly. It recommended several actions that are now being studied.

Merrill, the environmental finance center chief, was invited by Damariscotta’s Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee in July to talk about climate change and its effects on coastal towns.

Of the storms occurring in Maine over the past 100 years, six of the 10 worst have come during the past 10 years, Merrill said.

“We are seeing more and more impacts of change,” he told the town’s residents, including one who stood up to tell his own story.

Mike Herz lives along the Damariscotta River; his property includes a small cottage on the tidal river’s edge. 

He said a recent high tide, accompanied by a storm surge, had left more than an inch of water in his cottage.

“I’ve known all along, in an abstract way, that this was coming,” he said. Now that it’s actually happened, he said he would be busy figuring out how to raise the cottage by at least 2 feet.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell. Email: [email protected] Web: pinetreewatchdog.org. Disclaimer: Mike Herz, who is quoted in this story, was a donor to the Center in 2010.

Vermont has ‘Climate Cabinet’ preparing for change

In late August 2011, a catastrophic storm hit Vermont. The tail-end of Hurricane Irene, the storm and its flooding caused three deaths, left a half-dozen communities isolated for a week and wiped out hundreds of miles of roadways.

Scientists linked the storm’s ferocity to climate change. But it didn’t take the deadly event to prompt action on the state level: Gov. Peter Shumlin had already formed a “Climate Cabinet,” in May 2011.

Shumlin has charged his Climate Cabinet with a range of tasks, including having the state partner with local governments so Vermont communities “grow sustainably and are resilient to climate-change impacts in the future.”

A second task is to come up with ways to “protect Vermonters, their property, the state’s economic well-being and the state’s natural resources” from the effects of a warming climate. 

— Kate McCormick

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