Robert Bohlman's nightmares, a Category 2 hurricane slams directly into the York County coast on a full moon high tide. Sustained winds blowing at more than a hundred miles an hour pile up twenty-foot waves on the beaches from York Harbor to Old Orchard Beach and uproot thousands of trees, blocking roads and bringing down power lines. Heavy rain pushes every river and stream in the county past flood stage and over its banks. Fire and police departments are overwhelmed by pleas for help from people trapped in their homes and vehicles.
Bohlman is director of the York County Emergency Management Agency, and he spends a lot of time thinking about all the bad things that can happen in southern Maine. He wishes a lot of other people would, too, especially when it comes to hurricanes.
It's easy to be blasé about hurricanes in Maine. After all, it's been fifteen years since the last one hit, and most folks figure that any state that can weather two or three nor'easters every winter doesn't have much to fear from some extra wind and water in late summer, the season when most hurricanes have struck the state. "There is a certain amount of apathy about hurricanes," Bohlman allows. "We've been really lucky. We know we're in a hurricane-prone area. It's a matter of when, not if."
Bohlman has seen the news stories and heard the predictions that this might be the year Maine sees another major storm. Offshore water temperatures are up all along the Eastern Seaboard and even into the Gulf of Maine. In early May Charles Jacobs, acting director for the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), began getting reports from Rockland that lobsters were shedding earlier than usual, a sure sign of warmer water.
Still, no one is making any firm predictions. "My expectations this year are the same as every year," Bohlman says. "Someday it's going to happen. We don't get hurricanes every year, but we can't dodge them forever, either."
"The biggest problem with talking about a hurricane is that it happens so infrequently," explains John Jensenius, the resident hurricane expert at the National Weather Service center in Gray. Being a hurricane expert in Maine might not seem exactly exciting. But Jensenius is another member of the "when, not if" crowd. "Many people think it's much ado about nothing. But sooner or later it will happen," he warns.
Maine has been hit with five named hurricanes in the past fifty years, all of them Category 1 storms by the time they crossed our border. Even the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was only a Category 1 in Maine, according to official reports, but that was because it hit Long Island, New York, and southern New England first, devastating the region and killing more than six hundred people. "We think it's possible that a Category 3 storm could hit Maine," Jensenius cautions. "It just hasn't happened in modern times . . . yet."
Call it the Katrina Syndrome. New Orleans and the Army Corps of Engineers prepared for a Category 2 hurricane because they hadn't seen anything worse in decades. Then last year Hurricane Katrina, a strong Category 3 when it made landfall directly over New Orleans, made a nightmarish mess of everyone's expectations.
"There wasn't an emergency manager in the state of Maine that didn't stop and think and review after Katrina," says MEMA's Jacobs. "Maine is generally well run on all levels, and that puts us ahead of the game. If you're not well run in your day-to-day operations, it just gets worse during an emergency. That's a huge difference between us and New Orleans."
There is considerable speculation that global warming trends may influence both the strength and frequency of major hurricanes. While there is no denying increases in surface water temperatures both in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, no one is officially willing to make a direct connection. Jensenius notes that there is a larger pattern to hurricane activity, a cycle that seems to peak every twenty to thirty years. We're now on the upside of that pattern, a fact that was noted even before last year's bumper crop of hurricanes.
The giant storms are creatures of heat, accumulating their power from the warm waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Guided by upper air currents and the Bermuda High that often hovers just off the East Coast during the summer, Maine-bound hurricanes often track north along the coast, riding the Gulf Stream and feeding off its warmth. That's why the worst storms have come ashore on Long Island and the Connecticut shore; they're the first pieces of land to jut eastward into a northbound hurricane's path.
Even if a storm hasn't been weakened by an early landfall, hurricanes lose their strength rapidly once they reach New England. "Cold water is a hurricane's worst enemy," notes Joseph Kelley, a University of Maine professor and the state's pre-eminent coastal geologist. "As soon as it enters the Gulf of Maine, it hits cold water and begins to weaken."
That's not to say that it suddenly becomes a pussycat. Jensenius explains that hurricanes can have a variety of impacts, depending on where and when they sweep into the state. Typically the strongest winds are on the east side of the hurricane's track, while the heaviest precipitation is on the west side. "The winds from a Category 1 or 2 hurricane would take down a lot of trees and leave large parts of the state without power for a considerable amount of time," Jensenius notes.
Maine doesn't have any hurricane-specific building construction requirements. "We don't have a statewide building code, much less one that requires special hurricane ties for roofs and such," notes MEMA boss Jacobs. "But then I think the housing stock in Maine is already built much sturdier than southern climate homes just to withstand winter snow loads and such."
Rain is actually a bigger danger. Over the past decades, most of the fourteen Mainers who have died in hurricanes lost their lives to flooding. "Especially with this year already being so wet," Jensenius notes, "any tropical system that brings in a large amount of precipitation is going to be a concern because the ground is so saturated already."
The storm surge from a hurricane that stays out to sea would be relatively minor. But if it didn't stay at sea, "the worst storm surge would be on the east side of the storm," Jensenius says. His worst-case scenario would be a storm coming ashore west of Penobscot Bay at high tide, with the wind pushing water up the funnel-shaped bay and then up the river into Bangor. "That happened during the nor'easter in February of 1976, and it caused serious damage," he says. A storm surge in Casco Bay would certainly do severe damage along the immediate Portland and South Portland waterfronts, Jensenius notes, but most of the two cities sits well above the expected high-water mark.
"But you have a fifty-fifty chance that it happens on a low tide," adds coastal geologist Kelley. "Plus, hurricanes generally speed up as they lose power and get farther north, so they're not here as long. We just don't tend to get very large storms with a lot of wave damage. During Hurricane Bob, for example, some beaches actually gained sand."
Kelley takes the view that Mainers "absolutely" have more to fear from a nor'easter than from a hurricane. These so-called "winter hurricanes" are caused by low-pressure systems that sit just offshore and send strong northeast winds onto the coastline. "Nor'easters occur more often and last a long time, sometimes three or four high tides," he offers. "And they can be as powerful as a hurricane."
Number of hurricanes that have hit Maine in the past 360 years.8.05
Heaviest amount of rain (in inches) recorded during a hurricane in Maine, in Brunswick during Hurricane Edna in 1954.13
Inches of snow dropped on Aroostook County during Hurricane Ginny, by then a tropical storm, in 1963.11
Most fatalities in a single hurricane, when the Helen Eliza sank in Portland Harbor in 1869.
Trying to estimate the sort of damage a hurricane would do today is difficult, especially after more than a decade of rapid development in southern Maine. "Years and years ago, the last time we got hit really bad, we didn't have the level of construction we see on the shore now. Those were basically seasonal cottages and camps in those days," Bohlman points out. "These days we have some pretty ritzy houses along the shore, $2-million, $3-million homes, and a lot of year-round residents. You don't have to see too many of those big houses floating out to sea before the damage totals start getting stratospheric."
Bohlman points out that the heavy rain and subsequent severe flooding that inundated southern York County in May washed out bridges and roads and damaged some 1,250 homes without ever approaching hurricane strength. A Category 2 storm would easily see up to five thousand homes and businesses damaged or destroyed.
Oddly enough, or perhaps not, the state's major disaster preparedness agency doesn't have a specific hurricane plan. "Or a forest fire plan, or an ice storm plan, or whatever," explains Charles Jacobs of MEMA. "Our plans are generally generic. In Maine, that means dealing with water, either frozen or liquid, and occasionally wind."
State officials begin watching hurricanes almost from the time they form in the southern Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico. "You can see them coming from a long ways away, two days at least," Jacobs notes. As a hurricane approaches, MEMA's readiness levels progressively advance to the point where, if a hurricane strike looks likely, the agency's central command post in Augusta is fully manned and emergency personnel and equipment are being prepositioned throughout the potentially affected area. County emergency directors would be organizing evacuations of flood-prone areas and opening storm shelters throughout their region. Utility crews would start gearing up to handle downed wires and communications breakdowns.
But the most important preparations should be taken at the personal level. On that point every emergency management official in the state agrees. MEMA plans to send out a sixteen-page newspaper insert and mount a television and radio ad campaign this summer urging Maine residents to take precautions for natural disasters and emergencies. "We want to make people aware and urge them to prepare for the future," explains Jacobs.
"Our biggest concern is individual preparedness," adds Bohlman. "The feds have preached for years that people have to be ready to survive for at least seventy-two hours in their homes, with kits containing food, water, alternate lighting, and communications, like a portable radio. Medications are a big issue, too. And if you wait until the wind starts blowing to get ready, you've waited too long."
"We've been very lucky," adds Kelley. "Luck doesn't last forever."Hurricane Preps
The Maine Emergency Management Agency suggests that everyone have at least three days of supplies on hand to weather a storm or other emergency. Among the suggestions for your storm kit:
- Three-day supply of nonperishable food that does not require cooking
- Three-day supply of water, one gallon per person, per day
- Portable, battery-powered radio with extra batteries
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Telephone that works if the power is out
- A safe way to heat food and water, such as a camp stove
- Sleeping bags, extra blankets, and warm clothes in case heat is off due to power outage
- Three-day supply of medications
- Infant supplies, if needed, such as diapers, formula, etc.
- Food and water for pets
Other safety suggestions:
- Do not attempt to drive through flooded roads. Most deaths in hurricanes are from people drowning while trapped in their vehicles.
- Do not run a generator inside your house, garage, or shed. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the other major cause of death during natural disasters.
- Establish communication and evacuation plans for your family in case you get separated. Arrange to contact through a friend or relative outside the area if necessary.Historic Hurricanes
August 1954: Hurricane Carol
Maximum Maine winds: 78 mph
Maximum rainfall: 2.15 inches in Lewiston
Maine injuries: 7
Maine deaths: 3
Damage estimate: $10 million
The first of a one-two hurricane punch, Carol came ashore at Long Island, New York, and tracked through central Massachusetts and western Maine with high winds and heavy rain. Falling trees killed two people and blocked roads. The storm destroyed the Maine apple crop.
September 1954: Hurricane Edna
Maximum Maine winds: 74 mph
Maximum rainfall: 8.05 inches, Brunswick
Maine injuries: 0
Maine deaths: 8
Damage estimate: More than $15 million
Unlike Carol, Edna swept along the coast, causing huge amounts of shore damage. The heavy rain sent rivers over their banks and washed out bridges and roads throughout southern and central Maine. Some rural areas were without power for weeks.
September 1960: Hurricane Donna
Maximum Maine winds: 77 mph
Maximum rainfall: 3.18 inches, Portland
Maine injuries: 0
Maine deaths: 0
Donna peaked as a Category 5 storm in the Caribbean, but was still a dangerous Category 2 when it came ashore in eastern Long Island, New York. The eye passed between Poland and Norway in western Maine. Along the coast the storm surge forced the evacuation of residents in beach areas of Cumberland and York counties.
October 1985: Hurricane Gloria
Maximum Maine winds: 86 mph
Maximum rainfall: 2 inches, Rumford
Maine injuries: 3
Maine deaths: 0
The first major storm to hit Maine since Donna in 1960, Gloria swept through western Maine after making landfall in Long Island, New York. Thousands of trees were blown down, causing power outages that lasted up to two weeks in some areas. A motor inn in Ogunquit lost its roof.
August 1991: Hurricane Bob
Maximum Maine winds: 61 mph
Maximum rainfall: 7.87 inches, Portland
Maine deaths: 3
Damage estimate: $212 million
All of New England suffered heavy coastal damage from Bob, and in Maine the Sebago Lake region in particular was hard hit.