On Oct. 26, historic weather conditions reigned over the Midwest. What was described as a “monster low pressure system” set records for the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in Minnesota. Records also fell in neighboring states. In fact, the low pressure readings — associated with large storms laden with massive amounts of precipitation and packing high winds — was the lowest ever recorded in a non-tropical system in the U.S.
What does this have to do with Maine? One more bit of information included in the news coverage of the storm system brings it home: “The record low pressure now beats out the ‘Storm of the Century’ that hit New England states back in 1993.” And one more connection to Maine — Oct. 30 marks the anniversary of the 1991 “Perfect Storm,” which devastated parts of the southern Maine coast.
With the planet’s climate systems clearly in flux, there is one thing safe to predict — more extreme weather, more records broken and more weather-related destruction. All of which makes the effort by Maine elected officials to push for a less restrictive flood plain map from the Federal Emergency Management Agency seem misplaced.
In June, the city of Portland prevailed in undoing a proposed FEMA map that had the entire harbor in the high-risk flood zone. Such a designation would have prohibited new construction along the waterfront and stopped reconstruction of any buildings that had 50 percent or more destruction. The buildings in the flood zone also would have paid higher insurance rates.
FEMA has moved on to mapping other East Coast towns and cities to identify threats from storm-related floods. Southern Maine towns have hosted information meetings about FEMA’s mandated re-mapping process, and there continues to be the expected push-back by property owners who find their shorefront properties are restricted for development or which must carry a costlier flood insurance.
Disasters as recent as Hurricane Katrina, as well as the unprecedented storms that have clobbered Maine in the last two decades, should remind planners and municipal officials of the importance of a science-based review of what could happen. While elected officials earn points with constituents for turning aside the long arm of the federal government, those same people who cheer the thwarting of regulations may balk at paying for the repairs of damaged piers, streets and waterfront buildings, either directly through taxes or indirectly through higher insurance rates.
As long as FEMA has accurate information about our harbors and coast, and factors in local knowledge about how storm surges affect the area, flood plain maps should be accepted as wise disaster planning.