Tide Station Data Can Be Lifesaving

The Takeaway: Near-real-time data, plus research reserve expertise, helped a Maine fire chief decide to evacuate residents during a fierce nor’easter.

A nor’easter’s sudden wind changes can push storm surge and floods into unexpected areas, defying regional predictions and catching emergency response crews off-guard. In January 2018 at Wells, Maine, the fire chief avoided that frightening scenario because a tide station’s local, near-real-time data—and a hazard expert’s frequent consultations—alerted him to rapid and unexpected water-level changes.

As tides rose higher, the fire chief made a potentially life-saving decision—evacuating residents in low-lying coastal areas next to “jersey barriers.” These 1,200-pound cement structures near weak seawalls can come loose during storms, crashing into vehicles and nearby buildings. Frequent calls to a scientist with the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve also helped the chief decide when receding waters would enable emergency crews to enter hard-hit areas.

Just one year ago, an agreement between NOAA offices kept this Wells Harbor tide station operating. The Wells Research Reserve continues to coordinate data monitoring and outreach. Without that agreement in place, the fire chief would have been forced to rely on data from stations many miles away, such as Portland Harbor and Portsmouth Harbor, which feature dramatically different flows, marine floors, harbor sizes, and other conditions.

Sea level rise projections made possible by tide station data also helped the fire chief spot a public safety hazard—flood waves lapping at the base of a restaurant’s propane tanks. Following the storm, sandbags and protective barriers flanked these propane tanks. Eventually the tanks were relocated to higher ground.

The fire chief has urged his elected representatives in Maine and the U.S. Congress to continue supporting this research reserve and others like it. NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management assumed ownership of the tide station from NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, which continues to serve up the data on its Tides & Currents webpage. (2019)

More Information: Wells Research Reserve

Partners: Laudholm Trust, Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, York County Emergency Management Authority, NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services and Office for Coastal Management