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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

“People don’t want scientists telling them what to do,” Merrill admits. “We’re not pushing anything. We don’t come in with any solutions or tell people what they should do. . . . They decide what they want to do.”

The community identifies how to measure value, whether in property assessments, or number of jobs, or natural resources, or any number of other attributes. They also pick what to prepare for — what range of sea-level rise, how big a storm surge — and possible options for protection — erecting a seawall, raising a building’s foundation, or even relocating a key building.

Then Catalysis runs the numbers and returns with maps and tables showing the likely outcomes: How much damage will be done in a single major storm under certain conditions, and the total damage done over the course of a century of sea-level rise and increasingly powerful storms. Most importantly, the report also includes pricing estimates for the protective actions, so people can make a cost-benefit analysis.

Dampening the Port City
“The local tidal data has shown that sea level is rising,” Merrill notes. And people remember storms, like the Patriots’ Day storm in 2007 and the Mother’s Day storm the following year.

It’s useful to look at storm data beyond just predicting future storm damage: Three to four feet of storm surge now is the equivalent of what will be normal after that much sea-level rise in coming decades.

Some areas of Portland have already taken steps to adapt, says Bill Needelman, a senior planner for the city. Whole Foods is elevated above its surroundings, and the Intermed building on Marginal Way has a floor that’s above the street level.

“The city has been very forward-thinking in trying to solve drainage problems in Bayside,” observes JT Lockman, Catalysis’s vice-president of environmental planning. But still, during the highest local tides, sea water comes up the storm drain near Whole Foods and forms a salty puddle, even on sunny days, Lockman says.

Commercial Street, too, has seen some flooding at very high tides even without bad weather — and during some storms, many workers and residents recall seeing water spout out of runoff drains, flooding downtown streets and intersections.

What Lockman has found is that on the Maine coast, where the tidal range can be 10 or 11 feet, “if an event is short and it comes at low tide, it’s really no big deal.” But if it’s a storm that lasts for days, or arrives when tides are running above normal, or with high onshore winds, the toll can rise rapidly.

His preliminary results are just being reviewed for final tweaking before release to the public, but “our results are pretty much the same” as 2011 projections from Clean Air Cool Planet, which themselves resemble a 2009 UMass projection for the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership.

“What we hope to do is help the architects really get the conversation started,” Lockman says. Some options include whether the city should require buildings to be elevated, or give grants to property owners to raise their buildings. There is, after all, a cost to adaptation — and a cost if we don’t adapt.

“It’s a fancy calculator,” says Merrill. The real key is humans: “Going in and running those meetings is not for the faint of heart.” (See sidebar, “The Kingston Example.”)

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