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Weatherbeaten Maine Seeks More Resilient Infrastructure

A new commission appointed by Maine Gov. Janet Mills will explore ways to make state infrastructure more resilient to climate change.

waves crashing over sea walls in Wells, Maine
In March, storms in Wells, Maine, caused massive flooding, damaging roads and structures.
In Brief:
  • Maine has declared eight major disasters in the last two years.

  • Gov. Janet Mills has appointed a 24-member commission to study disaster response and resilient infrastructure needs.

  • Even state leaders who are skeptical about climate change are recognizing the need to adapt for disasters.

  • Stonington, Maine, is an island town in Penobscot Bay with a year-round population of just over 1,000 people. Its lobster fishing port is the biggest in the state, supplying about 11 percent of all the Maine lobster that gets shipped to food markets around the world. That means this minuscule geographic sliver of Maine’s 3,500 miles of tidal coastline is an essential piece of the state's culture and economy.

    In January, a winter storm caused a surge that flooded out a string of privately owned wharves that support the lobster industry and washed over a publicly owned commercial pier, knocking out all of its electronics. “We basically got hit by a wall of water,” says Linda Nelson, Stonington’s director of economic development.

    There was also extensive damage to restaurants, businesses and other public infrastructure, stretching into the millions of dollars. It was hardly the first storm to challenge state infrastructure. In fact, there have been eight disaster declarations over the past two years. A storm in December had struck inland communities, causing flooding and extensive damage to roads. Then in April, Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills requested a major disaster declaration from the Biden administration after a nor’easter hit communities near Portland.

    Last month, Mills signed an executive order establishing a new Infrastructure Rebuilding and Resilience Commission, charged with helping the state respond to recent disasters and developing a long-term plan for infrastructure resilience. The order was an acknowledgement that the frequency and severity of storms in Maine is getting worse with climate change, Mills said at an event in Stonington.

    The commission should help the state anticipate future disasters with a different approach to infrastructure investment. “We must ask the hard questions about what we can and must do to strengthen our ability to withstand storms that are increasingly more severe and dangerous and that pose a real threat to our infrastructure, our people and our economy,” Mills said.

    Immediate and Long-Term Needs

    The commission is made up of 24 people involved in environmental protection, engineering, construction, planning, economic development and other areas. They represent private interests and government agencies. The commission is co-chaired by Nelson, the Stonington economic development director, and Dan Tishman, chairman of the real estate and construction company that built the original World Trade Center in New York.

    The recent string of storms was a “wake-up call to the whole state,” says Hannah Pingree, director of the Governor's Office of Policy Innovation and the Future. This has focused more attention on infrastructure resilience. The Legislature allocated $60 million in this year’s budget for storm recovery efforts, setting aside $25 million for investment in working waterfronts; $25 million for infrastructure projects that aren’t covered by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster funds; and $10 million to aid small businesses.

    The commission will seek to help the state and communities take advantage of all available federal funding. “Part of our charge is to ensure that we understand the federal resources available to Maine and that we think about how to maximize them to rebuild from [recent storms] and for future storm events,” Pingree says.

    The commission may also make recommendations for future state funding, she says. It will also seek to help communities that are currently in the process of storm recovery, and create policy recommendations to help the state prepare for increasingly common disasters. It is expected to deliver a long-term resilience plan next year.

    Action in Other States

    Questions about how to mitigate climate change are still hotly debated. There's less argument when it comes to adaptation. Lots of states are looking for ways to better protect infrastructure against weather disasters.

    Without mentioning climate change, Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott convened a state task force in 2018 to improve future disaster preparedness after Hurricane Harvey. Vermont recently launched a Resilience Implementation Strategy, which will focus partly on shoring up public infrastructure that’s vulnerable to extreme weather. Maryland created a Blue and Green Infrastructure Policy Advisory Commission as part of a larger environmental law in 2022, which was tasked with developing more resilient infrastructure. Maine’s new commission will learn from other state efforts to adapt to more severe weather.

    “We’re just about solutions to what’s happening on the ground,” Nelson says. “I live and work in a fishing community. There’s a lot of political divides. But everybody recognizes — especially the guys who are out on the water everyday — that climate change is real.”

    What FEMA Won’t Pay For

    The federal government runs grant programs that help states and cities invest in resilient infrastructure. But only certain types of projects are eligible for disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

    In some cases, a city may need to rebuild a road that was washed out by a flood, and FEMA would help cover that cost. But if a city wants to make the area less damage-prone overall, like decreasing impervious surfaces to reduce flooding or relocating infrastructure altogether, federal funds don’t always cover that work. “FEMA will often help you rebuild infrastructure that was damaged, and sometimes they will help you build it back in a more resilient way,” Pingree says. “But they don’t pay to treat the cause.”

    Sorting through those questions is part of the new commission’s job. Another challenge for Maine — nickname: Vacationland — is the desirability of its coastal real estate for seasonal homes. The working coast is already such a small share of coastal land that the state is desperate to defend the parts that exist.

    Increasingly severe storms will raise the cost of rebuilding. Insurance reimbursements are less reliable as the climate changes. It’s conceivable that the combination of real estate demand and higher rebuilding costs could tempt some commercial fishing operations to walk away.

    Some storm-damaged places, such as Florida after Hurricane Ian, are seeing property transfers from middle-class residents to wealthier newcomers as the old owners struggle to come up with rebuilding costs.

    As Maine anticipates sea-level rise and bigger storm surges, the state wants to help relocate some residents and businesses away from the coast. But it also wants to protect those who have to stay. “With the working waterfront, it has to be where it is,” Nelson says. “There’s no relocation. So adaptation is key.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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