Storm Smart Building

The Atlantic hurricane season has officially started, as of Sunday. In terms of bracing for potential floods and rising sea levels, Massachusetts is taking the lead.

A new state program encourages cities and towns to take advantage of federal funding, both for flood protection and for safer construction. Also, new stricter building codes safeguard coastal wetlands.

The town of Scituate has been doing all this since the WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Prevent misery — that's the goal of the state's push to build more responsibly along the coast. Misery for homeowners who might get flooded, misery for emergency personnel who might be called to help in a disaster, and for the town that might get sued for permitting unsafe development. The man in charge of "mitigating misery" in Scituate is Vin Kalishes, the town's Conservation agent.

VIN KALISHES: I lived in town in 78 and worked for the town for 3 months after the storm doing disaster assessments and that type of thing. The destruction and devastation, and if you haven't lived thru it you don't understand

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Kalishes says now more than 60% of the people living on the coast in Massachusetts have moved there within the last 5 to 10 years and have never really experienced a big storm. They have however experienced numerous smaller ones. Homeowners in Scituate file more claims for storm damage than any other town. But since the Blizzard of '78, Scituate has become the poster child of what to do right.

VIN KALISHES: This is a parking lot Peggety beach and we're looking at dune field here in front on the barrier


MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Kalishes says three quarters of all structures here are above base flood level, and most homeowners received federal grants to raise or build their homes on concrete stilts.

VIN KALISHES: You can see how high pilings, that's one foot above what we called the base flood elevation or where the water would be in a 100 year event. That house is about 12 feet high from the ground that's where the water would be.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The state wants all homes along the coast to be raised one to three feet above the flood level. In an effort to encourage that, the Office of Coastal Zone Management created a Storm Smart Coast website that links local officials with resources on the state and federal level and helps them navigate a confusing web of best building practices, flood maps and available grants.

ED THOMAS: I think local officials want to be very concerned are concerned about not having their own mini version of 9th ward New Orleans in their own community.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Ed Thomas, a lawyer and disaster expert says if towns don't respond with stricter building code enforcements, they could be in for lawsuits.

ED THOMAS: There are also a lot of issues about liability about permitting people to do something that then causes harm to other folks that leads to disharmony in the community and unfortunately, litigation.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Scituate has never been sued for flood related damage, but since 1978, it's had the strictest building codes for coastal zones. In January Massachusetts adopted the same standards statewide. The restrictions don't always go over well with homeowners, says Neil Duggan. He's Scituate's building commissioner.

NEIL DUGGAN: As soon as they start arguing with me, we point at the pictures

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Faded photos from the 1978 Nor'easter, hang as a reminder right next to the permitting counter.

NEIL DUGGAN: It basically look like a war zone. The ocean is half way up into people's living rooms and over their windows, and into living rooms, houses are overturned this one here at the corner of 11Ave and Ocean side Drive is basically a pile of splinters.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Floods are the most common and most expensive natural disasters in the US. And if there's property damage, owners can sue the town if it allowed others to build a way that caused flooding. It's a powerful incentive to get local officials on board with stricter coastal building codes, says Wes Shaw, the Storm Smart Coast Program Manager.

WES SHAW: Local officials have a lot of the power. It's on the ground that people are making the choices that affect safety and also protection of the environment.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Massachusetts has more 15-hundred miles of coastline. Global warming projections show the sea level rising one to two feet. And some scientists are predicting that so called 100-year floods, will happen every two or three years in the middle of this century.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on June 2, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.