PORTLAND — Government officials hope signs unveiled last week will educate the public about steps that can be taken to reduce the impact sea level rise will have on waterfront businesses, homes and infrastructure.

The signs, paid for through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s High Water Mark Initiatives, are posted at Portland Pier, the Eastern Promenade, Back Cove and Fore River Trail.

“The important thing is not the fact we are putting up signs, but the fact they represent a step forward in our thinking about floods, coastal risk and resiliency,” Waterfront Director Bill Needelman said in a May 17 Portland Pier press conference.

Portland and York were the only municipalities in the state selected for the signs, but Brian Balukonis of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Belfast, South Portland and Scarborough may get signs in the future.

Nathan Robbins, a climate change specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the sign program is a great opportunity to have local, state and federal groups come together to “create a solution that can raise awareness and reduce flood risk.”

According to FEMA, floods are “one of the most common and costly natural disasters in the nation and can happen in any location.”

The sign on the Portland Pier depicts the water level during blizzard high tides in January 2018 and February 1978 – which more than 40 years later still stands as the highest water level the city has seen. Needelman said there is room to record additional flood levels on the signs.

According to the city, the blizzard of 1978 “caused unprecedented flooding that resulted in more than $20 million in damage to public and private infrastructure in the state of Maine due to coastal flooding, tidal surge, and high winds.”

The signs also indicate where the 1978 water level would be under low and extreme sea level rise by the year 2050.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said it is not too late to change that trajectory.

“We can still change the outcome. It is not inevitable,” he said. “… If we take the right steps locally, we can help globally.”

The goal of the signs, Needelman said, is to educate the community and help with decision making when it comes to sea level rise. 

Kevin Deneault, the city’s GIS mapping coordinator, said the signs will incorporate a story map that can be used by the community or schools for science, technology, engineering and math initiatives.

Needelman said getting to this point couldn’t have been possible without the help of local, state, federal officials and Peter Slovinsky, a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey, who initiated the idea.

“It is going to be that collaboration and relationships we’ve built that we rely on in times of storms, times of floods,” he said. “Resiliency becomes more than just a word, but something we actually need to put into place.”

Needelman said signs will be installed at the other sites over the next few weeks.

“In Portland, we are fortunate we have not had the kind of historical flooding levels other communities have suffered from, but we don’t want to understate that risk),” he said.

The city has several other efforts underway to combat sea level rise and flood risks, including the Bayside Adapts project and Climate Action initiative, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and 100 percent clean energy municipal operations by 2040.

The Bayside Adapts Report, completed in October 2017, warns the neighborhood between Back Cove and Forest, Cumberland and Washington avenues could experience sea level increase of 2-6 feet by 2100. The report recommends the city commit to manage sea level increases of 1.5 feet by 2050 and 3.8 feet by 2100. 

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mkelleynews.

Portland Pier is one of four locations in Portland that will have signs indicating where the historic water levels of the blizzards of 1978 could be by 2050 due to sea level rise. The city is one of two municipalities taking part in FEMA’s High Water Mark Sign Initiative.

Bill Needelman, waterfront coordinator for the city of Portland, speaks at the unveiling of a high water mark sign at Portland Pier during high tide May 17.

The sign at Portland Pier indicates the high watermark during two significant weather events, a blizzard on Jan. 4, 2018 and a blizzard on Feb. 7, 1978, which stands still stands as the highest watermark in the city’s history.

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