Maine fishing towns are rebuilding after a wild winter storm

Maine fishing towns are rebuilding after a wild winter storm

BRISTOL, Maine — On the waterfront in New Harbor, one of Maine’s most visited fishing communities, the damage is clearly visible. The remains of the piers, torn apart by successive storms on January 10 and 13, still remain in place, while others have simply disappeared, the debris recovered and carted away.

This small harbor was hit hard by two storms, each of which saw higher tides and storm surge than any of the locals could remember. Even the previous “record storm” in February 1978 did not seriously damage this port.

“Heartbreaking,” is how New Harbor Co-op President Mike Pryor described the experience of watching helplessly as the co-op’s large dock undulated and then collapsed under the weight of those storms.

“It’s a mess, we lost about 30 pilings down our pier,” Pryor said.

This damage means the entire pier needs to be torn down and replaced, a $320,000 project not covered by insurance.

“We’re going to have to save money somehow,” he said. “Whatever we have to do, borrow it. Because we have to start work by June 1st.”

That’s when the fishing season begins for menhaden, known as bougie, an important source of lobster bait for fishermen. The cooperative needs a dock to unload those fish. Crayfish men also need it to handle their catch and obtain fuel. They are temporarily able to do so at another nearby dock that survived the storm.

A few miles up the coast in Port Clyde, their co-op looks relatively normal, but president Gerry Cushman showed where an entire building had been pulled away from the pier. This happened despite the fact that the building and the harbor were both built of heavy granite stones covered with concrete. Cushman said the intense tidal action washed away some of the stones, causing the dock area to tilt and lift the large lobster bait building so that one end was about a foot higher than the other. This damage makes the entire area more vulnerable to future storms, he said.

The challenge now, as in all Maine fishing ports, is how to strengthen and rebuild the waterfront infrastructure so it can withstand the next big storm.

“Everyone has to build bigger, taller and higher,” Cushman said. But then he said his co-op — built in a large U-shape with a mix of wooden sidewalks, gravel areas and concrete — would have to take a different approach.

“Look at this whole facility, I don’t know where you’d start raising it two feet. You have to think outside the box. ‘Okay, this floods, how do we make it (safe) to flood?’

In New Harbor, Pryor said they plan to raise the new co-op pier by at least 18 inches, and said others in the harbor should do the same.

“This would be my recommendation to anyone considering repairing or replacing the pier,” said former catcher Chad Hanna, and Bristol’s first picker.

The Island Institute, which advocates for coastal and island communities, has been raising this issue for several years, encouraging dock owners working on the waterfront to increase the height of their docks to make them more resilient to sea level rise and severe storms, all of which are seen as problematic. They are the prominent consequences of climate change.

“I think this event and these storms highlight the impact we’re seeing on the Maine coast as a result of sea level rise and climate change,” said Sam Belknap, of the Island Institute.

“I think this changes a lot of minds and I hope this inspires people who are rebuilding to do so with climate change in mind,” he said.

Until now, there have been climate change skeptics along the waterfront, but Jerry Cushman said the two storms sent a strong message.

“For me, it was a big surprise,” Cushman said.

“I’ve always been aware that things are changing. But I think in terms of climate, they’ve given us enough warning shots and it’s showing us what it can do now. I’m a 1000% (believer).”

There are key questions to answer regarding money. Many estimates already put damage to working waterfronts at $100 million and perhaps more. No one knows yet whether federal disaster relief would be able to cover any of these costs if port owners were left to bear the cost on their own, or if the state might provide some money to rebuild. These answers are expected to become clearer in the next few months, even as the fishing industry begins to rebuild, ready for new seasons.

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