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Preparing for the worst on Cape Cod

December 6, 2017

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As Originally published in the Cape Cod Times:

Cape Coastal Conference highlights region’s vulnerabilities and planning efforts for disasters.

by Doug Fraser

HYANNIS — David Vallee described a scenario all too familiar to attendees at the 5th annual Cape Coastal Conference: sea level rise combined with more frequent and more severe storms to endanger Cape Cod property and lives.

He wasn’t forecasting a distant future; it’s a world that already exists, said Vallee, the hydrologist-in-charge for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service Northeast River Forecast Center in Rhode Island.

“Storms are more vicious, of greater magnitude, and more frequent,” said Vallee, who spoke at the Resort and Conference Center at Hyannis during a panel on flood risk, vulnerability and how Cape communities can prepare for storms and flooding.

An extremely active Atlantic hurricane season ended five days ago with 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes. A record three Category 4 hurricanes hit the continental U.S., according to NOAA.

It’s been 50 years since a Category 3 hurricane hit Cape Cod, but it doesn’t take that powerful a storm to have disastrous effects, Vallee said. Tropical Storm Sandy caused a lot of its damage because it moved slowly, pushing a lot of water in front of it, along with extended heavy rainfall that flooded New Jersey and New York and north to Rhode Island. In September, Hurricane Jose approached the Cape slowly and lingered, spinning offshore, as a less powerful post-tropical cyclone that drenched Nantucket with heavy rain and battered the Cape with 60 mph plus winds and heavy seas for three days.

Shrinking sea ice cover in the Arctic is to blame, Vallee said. The temperature difference between the Arctic and the equator helps drive the jet stream. But global warming is melting that sea ice, causing the jet stream to dip deep into the southern sections of the U.S. This not only caused more intense rainfall in the east but weakens steering currents that could push hurricanes away from the East Coast.

The heavy downpours in recent years are a product of that warming, with higher temperatures in the atmosphere making it capable of holding more moisture, Vallee said. In addition, sea level rise and erosion are bringing the ocean closer to homes, buildings and infrastructure, increasing the risk of damage.

The challenge is to help people understand the risk, said Joy Duperault, Massachusetts floodplain manager with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“We’ve got to get to the point where they say this really is happening and we’ve got to do something,” Duperault said.

Towns are preparing, or have prepared Federal Emergency Management Agency hazard mitigation plans that assess their community’s vulnerabilities, create an action plan and qualify for federal aid. But Brewster Town Planner Ryan Bennett said buy-in from local officials was, in her eyes, more important than getting FEMA approval for a hazard plan, because it will help in implementing that action plan at the local level where public support is vital to success.

Few people on the Cape had experienced the life-changing catastrophic storms that ravaged the Caribbean and Texas this past summer, said Barnstable Department of Public Works Assistant Director Robert Steen. It is important, he said, for towns to conduct exercises simulating storm response and involving all key departments, who identified where there would be trouble before an actual emergency occurred. Areas that didn’t flood could still be cut off when a road that ran through a flooded area was rendered impassable. Mandatory evacuations of certain areas may be needed to keep people from becoming isolated, and harder to reach should they have an emergency, he said.

“The biggest challenge is existing development,” said John Vokey, a risk management specialist at the Murray & MacDonald Insurance Services.

Newer homes built in areas vulnerable to flooding have had to comply with updated building codes that generally call for buildings to be elevated above anticipated storm surges. Those homes in at-risk areas built before 1973 are already seeing their insurance rates go up by 6 percent a year, Vokey said. If it’s not a primary residence, that figure can reach 18 percent. But 25 to 30 percent or more of FEMA flood claims come from areas outside the flood zones shown on maps, so Vokey and Duperault recommend homeowners review their policy and get in touch with their agents to determine the level of risk.

Emergency planning is one of many things a business owner has to deal with, all with significant costs, including healthc are, sexual harassment policies, increasing regulation, cyber security, and finding employees, said Wendy Northcross, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. The vast majority of the Cape’s 8,000 businesses are small and have limited funds to spend on preparedness.

But during a storm, it often comes down to family and neighbors.

Barnstable County emergency management assistant Phil Burt recommended families and businesses evaluate their preparedness now. Check on things like non-perishable food and water, and medical supplies and prescription, and plan an escape route to a safer area or shelter, he said.

Vallee recommended planning ahead with neighbors how to help each other when the power goes out or flooding occurs.

The conference continues today.