|"If our staff could barely get through it and understand it, how are local officials supposed to make use of it?"|
Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
A major hurricane hasn’t hit the Gulf of Maine’s densely developed coastline in two generations, but many experts agree it’s just a matter of time before a big storm hits the region. To help communities prepare for and bounce back from a hurricane, flooding, or other natural disaster, coastal resource managers in Massachusetts are working to ensure that local decision makers have the information and tools they need.
“We’ve provided one-stop shopping for local authorities,” says Andrea Cooper, shoreline and floodplain management coordinator for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management. “We are translating highly technical information into tools or strategies that they can use to make real-world changes.”
Launched as a website in May, StormSmart Coasts consolidates and simplifies information from around the U.S. on everything from hazard identification and mapping to legal information and funding. Fact sheets explain the tools and showcase success stories that provide real-world examples of complicated concepts.
Over the summer, staff members began a series of regional workshops to make it easier for planners, board members, and others from the state’s 78 coastal communities to find the information they need to prepare for natural hazards.
“This is about changing things on the ground, not state policy stuff,” says Wes Shaw, the phase one project manager of StormSmart Coasts. “It’s the local people who will be impacted by floods, sea level rise, and storms. Things need to happen right at the community level.”
In the second phase of the project, the Massachusetts coastal program will select three to five communities to directly implement StormSmart strategies. The lessons learned will then be translated and packaged for use by other coastal communities within the state and nation.
Flood damage in the United States continues to escalate. Even when the hurricanes of 2005—Katrina, Rita, and Wilma—are not included, flood damage increased six-fold from the early 1900s to the year 2007 and now averages over $6 billion annually, according to the Association of State Floodplain Managers.
Every coastal manager knows that a major hurricane or other natural hazard could devastate any community, potentially resulting in loss of life, extensive property damage, destruction of public infrastructure, and environmental impacts from the release of sewage, oil, debris, and other contaminants.
In areas with intense coastal development, such as the 1,500-mile shoreline of Massachusetts, even damage from less severe storms can be costly. These potential impacts may be compounded by relative sea level rise and impacts from climate change.
“Towns often have limited staff and lack the technical know-how and resources to prepare for storms,” notes Cooper, “yet coastal resiliency and storm readiness rest largely in their hands.”
Need to Prepare
The StormSmart Coasts program was created after a 2007 report by the state’s Coastal Hazards Commission stressed the need to help specific communities prepare for future climate change.
One of the commission’s top four priority recommendations was that Massachusetts establish a storm-resilient communities program to provide case studies for effective coastal smart growth planning and implementation.
The state’s Office of Coastal Zone Management also recognized the need to provide technical assistance to communities, submitting an application to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office for Coastal Management for a coastal management fellow. In 2006, Shaw joined the program to lead phase one of what is now StormSmart Coasts.
The first step in developing StormSmart Coasts was looking at information that already existed. Cooper, who served as Shaw’s mentor during the project, says they “quickly recognized that there was a myriad of information out there that was extremely difficult to access and understand.”
She asks, “If our staff could barely get through it and understand it, how are local officials supposed to make use of it?”
The focus then became translating the information into user-friendly terminology and tools that local officials in Massachusetts need to make decisions.
For instance, Shaw downloaded a 134-page technical document from a government agency website. Buried in the document was research showing that spending $3,000 extra during construction to elevate a home three feet can save $100,000 in flood insurance costs over the life of a mortgage.
While some information was clearly beneficial to local officials, a critical part of the project was determining what information local officials actually needed. Shaw used three networks of local officials on the North Shore, South Shore, and Cape Cod as sounding boards in the development of all the StormSmart products.
Over two years, Shaw and coastal staff members pulled information onto a user-friendly website and developed fact sheets that explain available tools and provide case studies of towns in Massachusetts that have implemented mitigation efforts.
“There is something on the website for everybody,” Shaw says. “There is a whole menu of options, and the best thing to do is pick and choose what’s best for your community.”
After the website was launched, Shaw led four regional StormSmart workshops, with about 100 local officials attending each one.
Following the workshops, 15 communities expressed interest in participating in phase two, requiring the coastal program to develop criteria for selecting the communities, Cooper says. “That to me is a good sign that the project is successful.”
The Massachusetts coastal program also was recently awarded a second coastal management fellow, Daniella Hirschfeld, who will lead the StormSmart program in the next phase. Hirschfeld will provide direct technical assistance and training to three to five communities to help them choose and implement the different tools and strategies.
“We’re going to take it for a two-year test drive,” Cooper says. “We want to make sure that what we think is workable is actually ground-truthed.” The lessons learned will then be packaged for use by all Massachusetts coastal communities and other states.
Shaw is going to continue his StormSmart focus, adapting the same approach for the Gulf of Mexico Alliance starting this fall.
“Creating storm-resilient communities is a national priority,” Shaw says, “but all change has to happen at the local level, ultimately, or it’s not going to happen at all.”
He adds, “Everything comes back to the local level eventually.”
To view the StormSmart website, point your browser to www.mass.gov/czm/stormsmart/. For more information, contact Andrea Cooper at (617) 626-1222, or Andrea.Cooper@state.ma.us. You may reach Wes Shaw at (360) 639-6954.