Local News

April 29, 2013

Are we prepared?

Disasters prove more costly as people move into storm-prone areas

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a five-part series on disaster preparedness. The additional stories will appear in Monday’s editions. Please see the accompanying local story in today’s paper by staff writer Charles Oliver.

NEWBURY, Mass. — There’s yellow police tape at the entrance to the Plum Island Beach on a Monday in mid-March. Behind it a generator is running. A Komatsu front loader and a Caterpillar digger sit nearby. Off to the right, a large backhoe is visible above rooftops crammed onto every possible lot.

What you can’t see are 13 houses that have been deemed uninhabitable, including three that have been torn down and three others that eventually will be razed, victims of yet another ocean storm.

About a quarter mile west, a crowd jams the Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates Hall for the monthly meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance. The group coordinates preparedness efforts for Plum Island and neighboring coastal areas here along the Atlantic seaboard north of Boston. Nine television cameras train on residents and property owners, most of them angry, all of them concerned about what’s happening to their community in the face of nature’s irresistible force.

One of them is Cheryl Jones-Comeau, who had to abandon her house temporarily after this storm, which hit three days earlier. She’s had a house on Plum Island for more than 30 years. In the past, islanders have bulldozed up new sand dunes during low tides to protect their houses from flooding and erosion. She wants to do so again, but the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection regulates pushing around sand on the barrier beach.

Comeau’s had it with that.

“I’m tired of DEP — they don’t want us living there anymore,” she says in the meeting. “There are houses that have been here a couple of hundred years. It’s too late. We’re here. We have to work with what we’ve done.”

People like Comeau who live in places prone to natural disasters know how to prepare, to have rations and a supply of water on hand, to bring patio furniture inside to limit damage from approaching storms. But the last decade has seen super storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac and monster tornadoes like the ones that swept through Alabama and destroyed one-third of Joplin, Mo., in 2011. A major Midwestern earthquake along the New Madrid fault is expected any moment.

Our preparedness efforts are rooted in 1950s-era Civil Defense. Are we ready?

The question matters even more as the climate changes. Some data suggest the weather is getting worse. For example, wind speeds during storms have picked up over the last few decades, according to MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel. But weather records don’t go back far enough for scientists to say conclusively that storms are any worse or more frequent because of climate change.

Regardless, storms today do more damage. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was the first storm in the United States to cause more than $1 billion in insurance claims. For all of the 1980s, there were $263 billion in insurance claims due to natural disasters. In 2005, Katrina alone caused $46 billion in insurance claims — out of an estimated $81 billion in damage. For the first five years of the 2000s, $420 billion in insurance claims were filed.

Hurricane Sandy was never more than a Category 3 hurricane, albeit the widest hurricane ever recorded. When it slammed into New Jersey and New York in October 2012, it was a mere tropical storm. Yet it’s estimated to have caused $50 billion in damage.

The storm that hit Plum Island in March and made Cheryl Jones-Comeau leave her house didn’t even do enough damage to qualify for state disaster relief.

Here’s why natural disasters are doing more damage: The United States has more than doubled in population since 1950, to 314 million. That growth centers on urban areas, especially along the coasts. Fifty-three percent of Americans now live in the 17 percent of counties sitting on a coast. Development is happening in vulnerable places.

People are more prepared for disasters in the wake of events like 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, say experts including Arnold M. Howitt, co-director of the program on crisis leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Preparation in America depends on two things: local dedication and regional cooperation. The strength of the relationships between state and local officials helps communities respond when a natural disaster has wiped out the cellphone network and power grid.

But storms are brazen trespassers, sneering Hulk-like at puny human boundaries. So a lot of relationships are needed.

Plum Island’s Merrimack River Beach Alliance isn’t unique but offers a good model for preparedness. It brings together representatives from three communities, three private citizens groups, state politicians and at least seven state agencies, plus the Army Corps of Engineers. The National Guard, the Coast Guard and FEMA are not typically at such meetings.

The beach alliance has no formal authority, but given the breadth of its representation, it has clout, and has had some successes. “The level of communication has gone exponentially upwards,” says Bruce Tarr, a Massachusetts state senator who is its co-chairman.

Better communication is key for smaller communities, which by themselves don’t have the resources to respond effectively to disasters.

Laws have been changed to allow FEMA to bring in personnel and equipment ahead of major storms, which helps speed response, notes Timothy W. Manning, deputy administrator for protection and national preparedness at FEMA. But he says centralized command otherwise does not make response faster.

“The most important thing is being prepared yourself, having your family ready,” said Manning.

The United States’ start-local approach can lead to scattershot results, as Sandy showed, with some New Jersey communities suffering major damage while neighboring towns with better preparation did better.

That raises the question of whether the country should centralize disaster planning, a la the Netherlands, which responded to the catastrophic North Sea Flood of 1953 with the Delta Works, a massive waterworks project.

Arjen Boin, a governance expert from the Netherlands who holds appointments at Utrecht University and Louisiana State University, scoffs at the idea that the Netherlands works as a model for the vastly larger United States.

“Nobody lives on the coast” in the Netherlands, he says. “Development never got out of hand. Because once they live there, you have to spend all that money protecting them.”

In the United States, disaster preparation at the local level vies for resources with roads, playgrounds, schools, senior needs and other issues. In smaller communities, the fire chief or police chief may double as the emergency management official.

A building inspector may not seem as important to the town budget as a teacher or a police officer. But communities that suffer severe damage in a disaster often turn out to be communities that have poor building codes, have lightly enforced existing codes or allowed development in vulnerable areas.

“Cost is an issue for every community,” says Louise Comfort, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Disaster Management. She says communities have to balance the risks of storm with the need to respond to them.

Risk is the crucial calculus. Communities can’t put a Category 5 hurricane or an EF-5 tornado into the town budget.

Smaller things come into play, too. On Plum Island, the houses now falling into the ocean used to be protected by an offshore sandbar. That sandbar has moved south, exposing these homes to increased erosion effects.

When you build your house on sand — or a barrier beach — you have to know that things might shift.

Next: Disaster dollars.

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