A Saco city employee works Tuesday on Camp Ellis’ Surf Street, one of several roads that got washed out by the fierce winter storm that struck York County’s coast early this month. Ferry Beach State Park in Saco endured 25 to 30 feet of dune erosion. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The nor’easter that pounded the Maine coast for six straight days in early March caused at least $2.75 million in damage to public property and the most significant beach erosion in York County in more than a decade.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in York County this week to verify damage from the storm, which began March 2 and battered the shoreline through 10 tide cycles over six days. In coastal towns from Saco to Kittery, seawalls crumbled, roads and sidewalks were damaged, and tons of sand and other debris washed ashore.

“This was a doozy in terms of the duration of the event and the fact that we had around 12-foot or higher water levels for six or seven days,” said Peter Slovinsky, a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey. “We had incredible waves during that period.”

Slovinsky said the storm is a graphic reminder of what is predicted to be an increasingly common phenomenon as sea levels continue to rise.

“It’s a picture of what things might be in the future,” he said.

Emergency management officials and scientists who study coastal erosion say the storm was the most damaging along the York County coastline since the powerful Patriots Day storm in April 2007. That storm caused damage statewide, however, and carried a much larger damage cost of $54 million, adjusted for inflation.

The Halloween Gale of 1991, also known as the Perfect Storm, caused similar erosion and property damage in York County. It caused a total of $14 million in five coastal counties, adjusted for inflation.

Officials are seeking a federal disaster declaration for the March 2 storm that would allow towns to receive FEMA disaster assistance to cover the cost of cleanup and repairs. That money does not cover the cost of private property damage.

The storm damage is easy to see this week at 393 Webhannet Drive in Wells Staff photo by Jill Brady

The state threshold for a federal disaster declaration is $1.9 million and preliminary estimates show York County easily exceeded that amount. The preliminary estimate of $2.75 million could rise when assessments are complete.

Private property owners are expected to submit damage claims to their insurance carriers, but in some cases a disaster declaration can mean federal funding is available to cover costs not covered by insurance, FEMA said.

One oceanfront house in Wells was condemned because of damage, and several houses in Saco also suffered structural damage. Private driveways, storage sheds and garages also were damaged.

Slovinsky said 10 high tides between March 2 and March 8 exceeded flood levels and, because the storm sat off the coast for days, sustained northeast winds added 12 to 18 inches of surge to the high tide. Those water conditions coupled with waves of 10 to 20 feet or more left beaches especially susceptible to erosion and other damage.

KNEW DAMAGE WOULD BE SIGNIFICANT

Wind and wave conditions were most extreme off the York County coastline. A federal weather buoy nine miles east of York Beach measured waves over 10 feet for four full days, and the waves there topped out at 25 feet on March 3. The buoy also measured sustained winds of 21 to 33 mph for most of the four-day period.

“We had incredible waves during that period” of March 2-8, says marine geologist Peter Slovinsky. Here, one of those waves hits a home in Kennebunk. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

During the Patriots Day storm in 2007, a buoy off Cape Elizabeth measured waves in the 25- to 30-foot range. The recent storm, however, lasted longer and each high tide added to the damage.

“We anticipated this was going to be a larger snowstorm,” said Arthur Cleaves, FEMA director for York County. “We didn’t know how much damage would actually be caused for those high tides. After the second high tide, we realized it would be significant.”

Slovinsky said the “long, slow chewing away of the beach and dune system” caused erosion along the York County coast that is comparable to the erosion caused by the Patriots Day Storm. The Saco area was particularly hard hit in terms of erosion, where Slovinsky measured 25 to 30 feet of dune erosion at Ferry Beach State Park. Other coastal areas saw 15 to 20 feet of dune erosion, he said.

Patrick Fox, the public works director for Saco, said the damage in Camp Ellis is as bad as the Patriots Day storm in terms of damage to public infrastructure, including roads and underground utilities. The city estimates $600,000 in damage.

The main access road to Camp Ellis was washed out and will remain closed until paving plants open for the season. Cleanup has been hampered by the two large snowstorms and unseasonably cold temperatures, Fox said.

The town of York was one of the hardest hit areas with an estimated $500,000 in damage, emergency management officials said. So much sand was washed away from Short Sands in York that a seldom seen shipwreck – believed to be 160 years old – was revealed for the first time in five years.

Shaun Barrett of the Kennebunk Department of Public Works clears stones from Beach Avenue on March 5. Kennebunk accrued the highest public costs from this month’s first nor’easter: $750,000. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

WINTER WEATHER HAMPERS CLEANUP

Police Chief Doug Bracy, who serves as the town’s emergency management director, said much of the public property damage occurred along the 2.5-mile stretch of Long Beach Avenue. Multiple sections of the sidewalk were pushed up and will have to be rebuilt and the seawall and drainage systems also were damaged. There also was extensive damage to sidewalks and a park near Short Sands Beach.

Bracy said winter weather has hampered clean up from the storm, though temporary repairs have been made to sections of Shore Road. Damaged sidewalks remained cordoned off and there is lots of beach rock, seaweed and sand that still needs to be removed, he said.

“Until it stops snowing, we can’t do much about that,” Bracy said. “It’s going to take us time to get our walkways and sidewalks back.”

Kennebunk sustained at least $750,000 in damage, the most of any town, said Cleaves, the York County FEMA director. Roads, sidewalks and portions of a sea wall near Middle Beach were damaged. Public services crews had to use front-end loaders to clear sand from the roads, and beaches that are normally all sand were strewn with rocks.

Surrounded by evidence of erosion and shorefront damage, an Eastern Avenue property is for sale at Camp Ellis in Saco. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Slovinsky, from the Maine Geological Survey, said there are already signs for recovery from the storm as sand returns to some beaches. The shipwreck in York is already recovered by sand, as are the close to 100 tree stumps exposed at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk.

Still, Slovinsky said this storm should have people looking to the future. “I think this is an eye-opening event in terms of coastal erosion and flooding,” he said. “Hopefully it has folks thinking about long-term scenarios where these events might be more common as our sea level rises over time.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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