It's Time For Northeast To Prep For Floods Like Those That Hit This Winter. Climate Change Is Why

FILE - Wind whips caution tape as a firefighter closes off a flooded waterfront street during a severe storm in this Jan. 10, 2024, in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
FILE - Wind whips caution tape as a firefighter closes off a flooded waterfront street during a severe storm in this Jan. 10, 2024, in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — After back-to-back storms lashed the Northeast in January, rental properties Haim Levy owns in coastal Hampton, New Hampshire, were hammered by nearly two feet of water, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and causing him to evacuate tenants to safer ground.

“Put them in hotels and everything. So it was brutal, for everybody. And at the apartment I have no floors; I have nothing,” Levy said. “It's really crazy. Not fun.”

Many scientists who study the intersection of climate change, flooding, winter storms and sea level rise agree the kind of damage Levy experienced was more of a sign of things to come than an anomaly. They say last month's storms that destroyed wharfs in Maine, eroded sand dunes in New Hampshire and flooded parts of New Jersey still coping with hurricane damage from years ago are becoming more the norm than the exception, and the time to prepare for them is now.

Climate change is forecast to bring more hurricanes to the Northeast as waters warm, some scientists say. Worldwide, sea levels have risen faster since 1900, putting hundreds of millions of people at risk, the United Nations has said. Erosion from the changing conditions jeopardizes beaches the world over, according to European Union researchers.

Another storm brought flooding to Massachusetts and New Hampshire on Tuesday. In the Northeast, the problem of climate change is especially acute because of forecasted sea level rise here, said Hannah Baranes, a coastal scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute's Climate Center in Portland, Maine. The state has already experienced 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) of rise since 1910 and is projected to have to manage 4 feet (1.2 meters) of sea level rise by 2100, she said.

These rising seas mean communities in coastal New England will need to make hard choices about when it's responsible to rebuild, Baranes said. January's storms, which flooded streets and washed away historic buildings, are a good example of the “type of severe event we need to be prepared for,” she said.

“This is a real moment to consider how much flooding is in several feet of sea level rise,” Baranes said. “And to consider when to rebuild, and in some cases whether to rebuild at all.”

The storms caused damage that coastal communities in several states are still struggling to clean up. President Joe Biden also recently issued a federal disaster declaration for some communities damaged by a wind and rainstorm in December.

January's onslaught was devastating for working waterfront communities in Maine where dozens of docks, buildings and wharfs were damaged or destroyed, said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the state's Department of Marine Resources. He said the combination of back-to-back storms in the second week of January and high tides brought “damage like we have never seen before” in a state where waterfront industries such as commercial fishing are vital economic cogs.

Waterfront business owners have vowed to rebuild. But Democratic Gov. Janet Mills told the Maine Climate Council that the storms also provided a stark lesson that “resilience is not just repairing and rebuilding physical infrastructure.”

The governor tasked the council with developing a plan to address the impacts of climate change in the state. That could include strategies such as rebuilding piers higher than they used to be, planting more trees along waterfronts and constructing newer, more durable culverts, bridges and roads, speakers said at a January climate council meeting.

“It's easy to think maybe this one storm was just an aberration. Or maybe the three storms we've had are just three off,” Mills said. “But what do we do about the future? We're not just talking about riprap and wharfs, we're talking about being ready in many ways.”

Even inland communities aren't immune to flooding from weather events like the January storms. The storms stirred bad memories of Vermont's summer storms that brought devastating flooding while causing new damage in some areas, said Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Vermont, which also suffered heavy damage in Hurricane Irene in 2011, is working to establish statewide floodplain standards, Moore told the Maine Climate Council.

Winter flooding brought “a lot of post-traumatic stress, frankly, in Vermont,” but there is also a sense that there is hope to prepare for the future, Moore said. “We have a unique opportunity that hasn't presented itself since Irene.”

Preparing for a future of stronger storms, worse flooding and increased erosion will make for difficult choices in many coastal areas. In New Jersey, the resort town of North Wildwood has carried out emergency repairs to its protective sand dunes without approval from the state government — and they're locked in a legal battle.

In Rhode Island, the RI Coastal Resources Management Council is encouraging the state's many coastal home and business owners to elevate structures and move landward whenever possible, said Laura Dwyer, the council's public education and outreach coordinator.

“People have always been drawn to the water and coast, and will continue to be," Dwyer said. "We need to be smart about development, recognizing that sea level is rising at an unprecedented rate and storms are becoming more frequent and severe.”

But after the January storms, a heavily damaged house that tilted into the ocean in Narragansett, Rhode Island, signaled to some that with the world’s changing climate the ocean is creeping ever closer to places people live.

For Conrad Ferla, a resident of nearby South Kingstown, the house was a harbinger of a future of heavy storms and dangerous flooding in the region that will require more than plywood, riprap and sandbags to be ready.

“I do think that a lot of properties along the shore should move to higher ground,” said Ferla, who started a group called Saving RI Coastal Access/Rights Of Way and advocates for a cautious approach to coastal building. ”I think that retreat is probably the the best option.”

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Associated Press photojournalist Charles Krupa and video journalist Rodrique Ngowi contributed to this report in Hampton, New Hampshire.

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Follow Patrick Whittle on X, formerly Twitter: @pxwhittle