The signs went up just as the prediction of the Rapture, the Christian belief about humanity’s final days, was all over the news. No wonder some people were disconcerted about the blue Emergency Evacuation Route signs appearing on the roads along Maine’s coast. Along with the end-of-the-world connection, some conspiracy-minded people even speculated that the signs were evidence of some vast government plan to herd people somewhere.
The truth is less interesting. Instead, the signs — in which the words are framed in a white circle with a directional arrow — are a prudent response to a public safety threat. The Maine Emergency Management Agency received a $139,000 grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration targeted to tsunami awareness efforts, part of which paid for the signs. The bulk of the grant went toward evacuation planning.
Yes, Maine could experience an tsunami, MEMA officials report. The biggest threat lies in the Puerto Rican Trench, an active fault area. If an earthquake of 7 or greater on the Richter scale occurred there, it could produce a tsunami of 3-feet to 6-feet hitting the Maine coast 5-8 hours later.
Maine usually escapes the tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods of the scale that dramatically wreak destruction on other parts of the country. We endure blizzards and the occasional ice storm, but most of us believe Maine is relatively safe from large-scale natural disasters.
This state of mind is not acceptable, given both historic natural threats and those that may come with a climate in flux. MEMA officials note that Maine has seen hurricanes, the unnamed so-called perfect storm of 1991 and what’s known as a meteorological tsunami, which in 2008 caused a tidal surge in Boothbay Harbor that rapidly and repeatedly drained and refilled the harbor.
MEMA used $30,000 of the grant to purchase and install 130 signs from Kittery to Eastport, relying on county emergency management agencies and towns to select exact locations and to designate a route. In some parts of the state, the routes continue west of I-95 so drivers avoid low-lying areas where roads flood. In other places, the routes lead to inland roads and shelters. Possible traffic choke points were identified and avoided.
While local residents may know the best roads to travel from, say, Deer Isle to Bangor to avoid a bad storm, summer visitors do not. The blue signs are common on the east and west coasts, so many visitors are already familiar with them. And some locals may not know their favorite route takes them through a low-lying road that could be flooded.
The argument will be made that federal grant money for such planning and signage is another example of wasteful government spending. Perhaps. But consider the loss of life and property destruction in New England that came with the hurricane of 1938 and the blizzard of 1978.
Being prepared is a small investment to make.