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Maine faces daunting to-do list to recover from recent storms and prepare for more extremes

Damage in Wells, Maine during a storm on January 13, 2023.
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Damage in Wells, Maine during a storm on January 13, 2023.

State and municipal leaders say they're scrambling to learn as much as they can about the three winter storms that flooded riverfront communities and set high tide records along the coast within the span of one month.

Those storms are what prompted an emergency meeting of the Maine Climate Council Tuesday in Augusta. The group gathered to discuss the impacts from the recent storms and share ideas on how Maine communities could better prepare.

"Resilience means not just preparing and repairing and rebuilding physical infrastructure," said Gov. Janet Mills. "Resilience is also about something that refers to a character of a people, the character of a state."

And officials from across the state acknowledged that their to-do list to clean up from the recent storms and prepare for future weather extremes is daunting.

"What we thought we had to do, it's way more," Stonington town manager Kathleen Billings said. "I was looking at sea level rise and everything else, it is way more than what we expected. It is coming on faster, and it's going to cost more."

The last three storms featured southeasterly winds, which are particularly harmful to pockets of the Maine coast. Scientists say it's still unclear whether those storms will become more common in Maine.

But Susie Arnold, a marine scientist and climate director for the Island Institute, said the last month has proven that Mainers are living in a world of weather extremes.

The Jan. 10 storm brought rain, snow melt and peak storm surges close to high tide.

"This event is now a one-in-five year event, meaning that there is a 20% chance of it happening in each year under current conditions," Arnold said. "The Saturday, Jan. 13 event broke water level records in Portland. This is a one-in-90 year event."

Climate council members said the public needs more education about how to read flood maps and understand warnings from the National Weather Service.

Hallowell city manager Gary Lamb said the river level projections from the National Weather Service were a crucial part of the town's response to the mid-December storm. Their predictions were spot on, Lamb said, and they helped many businesses prepare for the worst.

"Tuesday morning I checked the projections," he said. "That told me that there were five more feet of water coming at about midnight that night. So we really ratcheted up into another phase, with public works and police going down talking to people. Floods of trucks came in. The biggest U-Hauls you could get. Frozen food, fresh food, furniture and merchandise went up to the second floor or went out into somebody's pickup truck out of the way of the downtown. All kinds of things happened with dozens, if not hundreds of people, helping. We had all day Tuesday and into Tuesday night to move all those things."

Others suggested that working waterfronts will need to be reinvented to handle anticipated sea level rise and storm surges.

Some experts are also calling for an expansion of mental health resources for fishermen and others who lose valuable resources during major storms and other weather extremes.

The Maine Climate Council said it will incorporate the research and recommendations into the next statewide climate plan, which is due at the end of the year.