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Test-Driving StormSmart Coasts in Massachusetts

"We took those strategies we had presented and worked with communities to really test-drive them in a real-world setting."
Andrea Cooper, Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management

To help communities prepare for and bounce back from more intense hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise, and other impacts of climate change, coastal resource managers in Massachusetts created a StormSmart Coasts website that consolidated and simplified information from around the U.S. After working with seven municipalities to "test-drive" the toolkit, the state now has models that can be used by other coastal communities.

"When we started StormSmart Coasts, we packaged the tools we thought local officials needed," says Andrea Cooper, who retired in October as the shoreline and floodplain management coordinator for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management. "We took those strategies we had presented and worked with communities to really test-drive them in a real-world setting."

She adds, "What we found was that communities are more than ready to deal with climate change adaptation, and in fact were opting for more protective measures than we expected."

While the models are specific to Massachusetts, Cooper believes they would be useful to other coastal communities around the country.

"There are some Massachusetts nuances, but I think basically every product is transferable." Cooper says. "There are always going to be different local political, social, and financial constraints that require these models to be tweaked from town to town, but the issues of climate change that we are all facing are basically the same."

The Toolkit

Launched as a website in May 2008, Massachusetts' StormSmart Coasts provides information on everything from hazard identification and mapping to planning and funding. The website provides a menu of regulatory tools, case studies, outreach strategies, and other technical assistance materials for successful coastal floodplain management.

"We provided one-stop shopping for local authorities by translating highly technical information into tools or strategies they can use," says Cooper.

The state's efforts were so good that NOAA and other partners are pursuing StormSmart Coasts as a national concept, with a website that gives coastal decision makers a definitive place to find and share the best resilience-related resources available nationwide, and that provides tools for collaboration.

To view the StormSmart Coasts National Network, go to http://stormsmartcoasts.org.

Ground Truthing

When Massachusetts' StormSmart Coasts website was launched, "it felt like we'd birthed a baby," Cooper says. "But there was still the question, 'Could the toolkit result in real-world change?'"

Seven cities and towns were selected to "ground truth" the toolkit, Cooper says.

Working with Massachusetts coastal program staff members, as well as partner organizations and agencies, local officials from each community chose StormSmart Coasts tools to meet their municipal floodplain management challenges, and considered local goals and capacity in applying the tools.

While each of the towns produced "inventive models," Cooper says the efforts of two communities stand out.

Going 3-D

One of the standout communities was Hull, where photo-realistic 3-D models helped community officials and residents visualize different scenarios of sea level rise for seven facilities that are critical to the community's public safety, health, and welfare, such as a wastewater plant, electric plant, and emergency shelter.

"They felt that sea level rise just wasn't on people's radar screens," Cooper says. "They wanted a visualization tool to help residents understand the impacts of four possible sea level rise scenarios."

Developed using Google Earth, the 3-D models "really provide a template for other communities to add their data and produce their own local 3-D models," Cooper says.

Providing Incentives

As a result of the 3-D models, Hull officials were better able to plan for adaptation, relocation, or other measures to protect residents and services in the future.

For instance, the community created an incentive program that encourages builders and homeowners through reduced fees to elevate new and renovated structures above predicted floodwaters.

"You can't require builders to go above two feet elevation according to the state building code, but a town can offer incentives," Cooper explains. "A builder or homeowner can choose to build at a higher elevation."

Amending Bylaws

Another pilot community, Oak Bluffs, adopted several new amendments to strengthen the town's floodplain overlay district bylaw.

The amendments prohibit new residential development and expansion of existing development in coastal high-hazard flood zones designated on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Flood Insurance Rate Maps. The revisions to the bylaw will also require that all new development in less hazardous areas meet design criteria and performance standards through a special permit process.

Nearly unanimously adopted by residents at the 2010 annual town meeting, the amendments will minimize threats to public health and safety and increase the town's capacity to recover after a storm by reducing damage to personal and public property.

"The design criteria are based on not just the current flood-base elevations, but they also are looking at anticipated impacts for the future," Cooper says. "They are preparing to address development in areas that may be more in harm's way many years from now."

The coastal program will provide technical training to town officials as they work to incorporate the new regulations into the decision-making process.

Local Decisions

Because Massachusetts is a home rule state that does not have county governments, coastal managers have had to work at the local level. But Cooper believes this is where most of the decisions about climate adaptation will take place throughout the country.

"I firmly believe," Cooper says, "that what all the coastal programs share in common is that sooner or later what progress we make in terms of environmental protection and climate change adaptation really comes down to the local level and how local officials are adapting to or mitigating climate change."

She adds, "Locals are the ones who permit development, or create hazard mitigation plans, or have emergency response plans. Those steps that are taken at the local level are really on the front line for resiliency. Coastal managers are the ones who are able to provide the help they need."


To view Massachusetts' StormSmart Coasts website, go to www.mass.gov/czm/stormsmart/. To read more about how the state created StormSmart Coasts, go to www.coast.noaa.gov/magazine/2008/05/article1.html. You may also contact Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management staff members Julia Knisel at Julia.Knisel@state.ma.us, and Rebecca Haney at Rebecca.Haney@state.us.ma.

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