Blizzard that Buried New England Flooded Coasts – Again

Written by Sarah Murdock on . Posted in Extreme weather, Your Climate Stories

About a year ago, I wrote about a nor’easter that slammed into Scituate, Massachusetts, where I live, on Dec 30, 2010. One of our crumbling sea walls was breached, flooding dozens of homes. Two homes caught fire and burned to the ground, as firefighters were hampered by five-foot-deep freezing water. The residents of those homes were displaced for months; some were forced to permanently relocate.

Well, a mere two years later, it happened again.

A winter nor’easter(which some called  Nemo) came to call last weekend, bringing with it blizzard conditions and about two feet of snow in my town – and more than three feet in Connecticut – breaking snow total records  in some communities. Coastal communities also experienced a significant storm surge during astronomical high tides. This time, the Scituate sea wall wasn’t breached, but overtopped by surging waves, flooding hundreds of homes and again displacing hundreds of residents and causing emergency rescues.

From my perspective as a homeowner, seeing neighbors evacuated from their homes twice in as many years, it sure feels like “the new normal” of more intense storms and extreme weather we’ve been told to expect from global warming. We should be planning for the increased frequency of these coastal storm events and the accompanying costs.

There is no easy remedy to the problems Scituate faces, but a big step in the right direction would be to allow wetlands and reefs to do the work currently done — not always effectively and at great cost — by levees, dams and seawalls. Seeking opportunities to conserve and restore existing wetlands, preserve open space and even seek areas acceptable for existing structures to retreat from water’s edge, would likely reduce costs and lower risks to people and property.

So you can imagine that my work over the past year, to promote federal policies that protect and restore coastal ecosystems and make them more resilient, has been more than just a job to me.

One program I focused on is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which makes available federally sponsored flood insurance for properties in flood risk areas. But contrary to Congressional intent, the program as it now functions is actually increasing risk from storms and floods to people, property and ecosystems. Why? Subsidized insurance rates and use of outdated and incomplete maps are among the problems.

Situations like the sea-wall breach in my town are playing out all over the country. Especially in regions like the Gulf of Mexico, where destruction from severe hurricanes has inflicted a huge cost, The Nature Conservancy’s state and field programs have worked on the effort to reform the NFIP. Improvements to the NFIP that focus funds on conservation and restoration will minimize further risk and damage to property and ecosystems and also save taxpayers money.

Throughout 2012, The Conservancy participated in the SmarterSafer Coalition, a diverse group of stakeholders advocating for reforms to the program. We joined with insurance companies, fiscally conservative organizations, financial institutions, real estate interests and other environmental organizations calling for reforms by meeting with legislators, sending letters to Congressional leaders, distributing fact sheets and advancing specific policy recommendations. I testified before the Senate Banking Committee, on May 9, 2012, calling for passage of a 5-year reauthorization bill that contained many of the reforms we supported.

And our efforts were successful – on June 29, 2012, Congress passed that 5-year reauthorization of the NFIP, which will guide development away from our nation’s freshwater and coastal floodplains, better inform the public about  flood dangers to people and properties  and allow informed decisions to avoid building in areas of high flood risk. The bill also requires, for the first time, consideration of our changing climate and the accompanying processes, such as sea level rise and changing precipitation patterns, when flood risk maps are designed.

The reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program is a victory for conservation. But the work isn’t ever done. Now we turn to implementation: making sure reforms to the program yield success.

Over the coming year we will promote these reforms and continue to push for policy solutions that emphasize natural defenses: conserving and restoring natural systems as effective ways to reduce our climate and disaster risks.

Sarah Murdock is The Nature Conservancy’s Senior Policy Advisor for Climate Adaptation

Photo by Eric Haynes, Flickr user Office of Governor Patrick (Gov. Deval Patrick tours storm damage after the huge blizzard that caused coastal storm surge and heavy snow.) Used under a Creative Commons license.


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