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Maine faces daunting recovery from storms while preparing for more extremes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People in Maine have a close relationship with the water. Maine's rivers once powered old mills, and many people now make their living on or near the ocean. Recent winter storms have demonstrated, though, that too much water is destructive. Maine Public Radio's Nicole Ogrysko reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES LAPPING)

NICOLE OGRYSKO, BYLINE: The waves gently lap the beach on this cold but bright January day. It's hard to believe that a few days ago, the view from David Plavin's windows was enough to send him packing. He left for a friend's house, beating out a storm that flooded his Camp Ellis neighborhood in Saco and set high-tide records up and down the coast.

DAVID PLAVIN: You know, the waves will break over the top of my house, and we get, like, a lot of splash-over. And you can see the force. I mean, if you look at this seawall here, I mean, this this whole seawall is just totally caved in.

OGRYSKO: The storm ripped siding from his home. His roof is damaged, and his stone patio is destroyed. Plavin says he's experienced a handful of intense storms since he moved to this home seven years ago, but two whipped through coastal Maine within less than a week.

PLAVIN: It gets to be a little bit discouraging, and I think a lot of people down here are starting to feel that way.

OGRYSKO: A few weeks earlier, heavy rain and snow melt brought catastrophic flooding to three of Maine's large river systems. That storm left behind at least $20 million in damage to public infrastructure. That's not including what private home and business owners like Christal Treadwell have lost.

CHRISTAL TREADWELL: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven vehicles - the snowmobiles, the motorcycle, the golf cart.

OGRYSKO: Treadwell runs a wedding venue on her property near Rumford. She recalls watching the water from the Androscoggin River rise and quickly flood her front yard. Eventually, the water reached her windows.

TREADWELL: The water wasn't receding. It was actually getting higher. And I said, it's time to go. So my stepson and his friend came with a boat.

OGRYSKO: Treadwell, her husband and three dogs were evacuated. Her tenants, who live in the apartments upstairs, also left safely. The three storms have served as a wake-up call for Maine. Hannah Pingree is a leader on the state's climate council, which has been helping communities plan for climate change.

HANNAH PINGREE: We thought we had time to make some of these changes - to raise up wharves, to think about, you know, what happens to homes and infrastructure that's right on the ocean or right near flood plains. And I think people now feel like, OK, we understand what we need to do, but we need to do it more quickly.

OGRYSKO: Many of the Camp Ellis residents are looking for more action more quickly. The neighborhood is particularly vulnerable at the mouth of the Saco River. There's a plan to build a new stone structure to block the waves that have been altering the coastline for decades, but the federal government is a few years away from starting the work, and some residents worry that by then it won't be enough.

JOE KEHOE: We can't wait till 2025 or '26, '27. It has to be 2024, like, tomorrow, or we're gone.

OGRYSKO: Joe Kehoe moved from rural Massachusetts to Camp Ellis four years ago. He says he wanted to recreate the summers he spent on the beach near Boston. And he fell in love with this house steps from the ocean. But now Kehoe is dealing with a big mess. The storms wiped out much of the sand underneath his home. Jersey barriers serve as a makeshift seawall between the ocean and his house.

KEHOE: I'm scared. I got to be very honest with you. I'm very scared.

OGRYSKO: In the aftermath of severe storms like these, scientists in Maine say communities can adapt by rebuilding homes or piers higher; they can avoid by not building new infrastructure in hazardous places; or they can retreat, leaving vulnerable locations behind entirely. Maine officials say all options are on the table. For now, David Plavin says he'll repaired the wooden seawall, but he won't redo the patio again. The relatively minor damage isn't enough to send him packing for good.

PLAVIN: No, I don't want to leave. But, you know, you don't want to live the rest of your life and wondering when the next one's coming.

OGRYSKO: As for Joe Kehoe, he's considering a few options to repair and protect his home. Even though the prospects are daunting, he says he wants to stay, too, as long as he can.

For NPR News, I'm Nicole Ogrysko in Saco, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nicole Ogrysko