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About a dozen miles from Rockland is the island community of Vinalhaven. The largest island in Penobscot Bay, both in terms of land mass and the number of people, Vinalhaven is not connected to the mainland by any structure. Transportation to and from the island is offered daily by the Maine State Ferry Service out of Rockland. The island’s population is about 1,200 year-round but swells to between 5,000 and 6,000 in the summer with visitors and seasonal residents.

Once a leading producer of granite, today tourism and lobstering are the island’s biggest industries. The lobster catch contributed by Vinalhaven fishermen accounts for 10 percent of the state’s total.

The heart of the community is Carver’s Harbor, home to a busy commercial port with more than 30 businesses along Main Street and 200-plus fishing boats in the water. Rising sea levels and flooding due to storms is a huge concern for residents and businesses alike. The community is taking action now, recently completing an assessment of the harbor area and coming up with options to make sure its community is resilient in the face of potentially drastic change.

Jack Sullivan

Much of Vinalhaven's downtown and working waterfront can be underwater during several high tides throughout the year.

Q & A With Andy Dorr, Vinalhaven Town Manager

What got the ball rolling for Vinalhaven and what have been the island’s first steps?

When the flood maps of the National Flood Insurance Program were recently updated, that was the impetus for starting to ask questions. At the same time, students at the middle school were learning about global climate change. They applied what they were learning to their own community and made a presentation to the selectmen. It was kind of a nice, fun way to kick off the issue. From there, we created the sea level rise committee and we applied for and got a couple of grants.

How did you get volunteers for the sea level rise committee?

There were a handful of folks who were interested in the topic and a handful who understood how sea level rise would be an issue for Vinalhaven. They were willing to be on a committee to address the issue. The committee is full at this point. We have six members – one is a selectman.

What grants did you get and what have they done for the community?

The first one was the Maine Coastal Program Planning Grant. That was a big next step. The grant allowed us to work with Ransom Engineering to identify how and where, and maybe even when, we are at risk. That process took about a year-and-a-half.

While we were working with Ransom, we got a technical assistance grant. A Design and Resiliency Team (DART) – an interdisciplinary team – came to the island for a weekend during which they hosted community charrettes and focus group discussions. They capped the weekend with a presentation showing us some visuals of what the water level would look like under different scenarios, like what the flood level would be in a 100-year storm situation, and how particular changes, such as elevating roadways, sidewalks and buildings, could help mitigate future flooding.

At the same time these grants came through, we were working on our downtown master plan. Because of that overlap, we had people starting to ask questions about sea level rise impacts during our downtown planning meetings. They wanted to understand the risks and what the community should be planning for infrastructure-wise based on those risks.

Jack Sullivan

Vinalhaven's low-lying North Haven Road experiences flooding.

So, with information at hand from these grants, what are your next steps?

We’ve got a long list of things we’d like to do, so it’s about prioritizing those things. The first thing we’re going to be doing is the Maine Flood Resiliency Checklist. We’re working on that sometime this fall. It’s a good process in and of itself because it helps the community identify places to look at more specifically. It also could be used as a precursor for participating in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System. Participating communities become more resilient as they meet various levels in the program and as communities meet those resiliency guidelines, flood insurance premiums for those with flood insurance are lowered. How much they are lowered depends on the degree of resiliency reached. This process requires a lot of time and at least a dedicated part-time staffer, so that’s a step we’ll be looking at as we go along.

In terms of the big infrastructure pieces, some of it is just part of natural lifecycle replacement. When you have to replace a bridge and you know it floods now, then it probably makes sense when it’s time to replace it to raise it. Part of what the Ransom grant did for us was to give us probability scenarios to help us figure out if we can get 60 or 70 years out of a new bridge raised to X level.

We also plan on reaching out to other communities in other areas – maybe even other parts of the world – that are ahead of us in dealing with or addressing this. There are a lot of places in Europe and even in the States that are making efforts to make significant changes to their infrastructure to mitigate or adapt to those rising risks. By looking to what others have done or are doing, we can learn: Is it working? How is it funded? Are people satisfied? And we can learn from things that didn’t work.

How are you engaging your community on this issue?

We don’t have a formal plan to engage the community, but it’s any means available to us. Sea level rise committee meetings and selectmen meetings. We put columns periodically in the local paper, The Wind, which detail the committee’s efforts. We put information out on social media – primarily Facebook – and on the town website. And we have binders of materials about the issue at various locations in the community, like coffeeshops.

What resources would you direct other communities to?

Call your neighboring towns and ask what they’re doing. There are some great listservs out there, too. The Island Institute and the state have good resources. The state has a good flood management program and mapping resources and some how-tos. Most communities have access to a regional planning commission. The Mid-coast Regional Planning Commission is making an effort to work with communities on sea level rise work. There’s funding from the state to help carry that out. So, that’s another resource communities should be looking at.



At the gateway of the Pemaquid peninsula in Lincoln County is the historic coastal village of Damariscotta. Overlooking a tidal river, Damariscotta, with a population of around 2,200, was once inhabited by Native Americans drawn to the area, like many are today, for its oysters.

A famous shipbuilding port in the 1800s that connected the region to the world, Damariscotta still retains its importance as the peninsula’s year-round commercial and service center. The town’s downtown, bordered by the Damariscotta River, is home to numerous shops, art and culture establishments, restaurants, service providers and boating and fishing operations, attracting locals and tourists alike.

A coastal hazard study of Lincoln County, conducted in 2012 by the Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission and the Maine Geological Survey, set the town’s select board back on its heels when they saw visuals showing most of the downtown area under water at both one- and three-feet estimates of sea level rise. The study’s assessment concluded that the town’s downtown is particularly vulnerable to flooding due to sea level rise and storm surge because it is both low-lying and close to the river.

The community swung into action immediately, forming committees to examine and begin addressing the issue. Various projects are underway with more to come.

Moira Rose Mahegan via King Tides Project

The Damariscotta River on Business Route 1 between Newcastle and Damariscotta during a King Tide

Q & A With Matt Lutkus, Damariscotta Town Manager

What have been Damariscotta’s first steps?

We had the Milone & MacBroom Flood Resiliency Study completed in 2015. We accomplished the study through a Maine Coastal Resiliency Grant. The study gave us flood adaption options for the downtown and some cost estimates. The preferred recommendation is to build a sea wall along the municipal parking lot along the riverfront and raise the level of that parking lot as well as making some drainage, pedestrian and other improvements, such as the addition of a public restroom facility and enhancing the park that borders the harbor.

Matt Lutkus

The parking lot in downtown Damariscotta during a flood

At this point, we don’t have a specific plan for implementing the recommendations with the exception of a few things because of the lack of serious interest on the part of the federal agencies who would be able to fund such projects. They’re focused on places like the Carolinas where the situation is dire.

The cost of the recommended flood resiliency project was in the neighborhood of $1.4 million. We’re a small town with a $6 million budget. $1.4 million seems like small change to some of the larger communities, but that’s a huge amount for us, so we would need to have some federal assistance to do that.

But, you’ve obviously been able to raise some funds to get some work done – you’ve improved the harborside park and plan on starting building of the public restroom. So, how did you get the funds?

We came up with the idea of rather than trying to look for a million-and-a-half dollars to get the whole waterfront project done, we’d split it up into doable segments. I started asking for funds in the capital improvement plan. This is where the private donors came it. They thought breaking up the whole into doable projects was sensible. Almost immediately we got $50,000 in private donations to redo the park. It was a realization that the town staff can get something done and they’ve got a reasonable plan to do it. We got $50,000 and we redid the park totally. It’s a beautiful green space now.

Then I got $11,000 in the public restroom account in capital reserves. It was next to nothing compared to the overall cost of the project, but it was a seed and it got it as a line item in our capital reserves.

When we did a bond issue for major sidewalk and culvert replacement, I added in $60,000 to it, then we had $71,000 for the restroom. This got the attention of some private donors and the Twin Villages Alliance who agreed to give us the money to get the project done. We have 12 to 16 donors for the project. We’ve acquired the site and torn down a dilapidated building and now we are putting together a request for proposal for the restroom structure.  

There’s nothing in local or state statute that prohibits me from soliciting donations, but it’s awkward. I work with a member of the Twin Villages Alliance. He takes the lead in finding people to approach and I do the dog-and-pony show to those people. That’s worked out very well.

Getting donations has been like a snowball in a very positive way. Some of the folks who have seen the progress we're making are saying, "OK, now you need to get this parking lot done, and you need to make the pedestrian improvements identified in the study and the drainage work which contributes to flood problems and we’re going to give you the money to do that." It’s not enough money to do the whole thing, so my plan is to work with the sanitary district and whatever grants we can get our hands on, but we have two-thirds of the money committed by private donors.

The other thing we try to do is leverage the money we have. For example, we got $200,000 donated for sidewalk improvements around town. We took that $200,000 and leveraged it into $1.2 million by accessing funding from a variety of sources.

We’re trying to do that with the flood resiliency project. We’re taking the million dollars we’ve raised for the parking lot improvements that we’ll be doing next year and the year after and leveraging it to other sources. I’ve been talking to the water and sanitary district and I know the state has some clean water revolving funds for drainage improvements. I’m hoping we can use that money for the drains in the parking lot.

How have you communicated to the community the need for flood resiliency and what you’ve been doing to protect the downtown?

We’ve had community meetings and open houses and PowerPoint presentations. I’ve taken the PowerPoint presentation on the road, too. And we got a grant from the Orton Family Foundation for community outreach. We used the grant to survey residents and businesses about the various aspects of the waterfront project.

From the very start we had tremendous community support for flood protection and resiliency efforts. It was a no brainer to do something.

And the support – donors for instance – don’t just live in Damariscotta. They live in New Harbor, Newcastle, Pemaquid – throughout the peninsula – but they think of themselves as being from Damariscotta because the town is the designated service center for the area and people love the downtown. The reason many people live here is because of the downtown.

The theories of dealing with storm surge and sea level rise are to retreat or protect what you have. When Damariscotta’s downtown is gone, it’s gone. There’s no moving it to the high country. It’s not going to have the appeal for tourists or for residents if we build a new downtown up on the hill, so what we have to do is build that resiliency in to keep what we have.



Portland, the state’s largest city, is and always has been intimately connected to water. As the largest tonnage seaport in New England, its deep water harbor attracts commercial vessels from all over the world – as well as recreational boats of all stripes, from sailboats to kayaks.

And today, as in previous centuries, its waterfront area downtown has been its economic and cultural center. Fishing, maritime activities, the arts, shopping, recreation, food and dining, and tourism – everyone comes to and depends on the city’s downtown waterfront.

As much as the water is a beloved by residents and visitors alike, it also poses a serious risk to the city. Nuisance flooding along Commercial Street bordering the waterfront and in Bayside has come to be expected and accepted.

A 2013 sea level rise impact report by the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership estimated that with one foot of sea level rise, Portland’s nuisance flooding intensifies, especially with tidal inundation. With three-feet of sea level rise, though, water has more serious impacts, including tidal inundation of nearly every wharf and pier along Commercial Street and roads and buildings in Bayside and in the Back Cove would be overwhelmed.

The city got a taste of what could come on September 30, 2015, says Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator, when significant rain in the middle of the day coincided with astronomical high tides. Four inches of rain an hour and an 11.5-foot tide at noon resulted in three feet of water in Bayside – with some places topping out at five feet. It was a shocking wake-up call for city leaders and residents, who have been trying to slowly address sea level rise and storm surge ever since.

Nick Battista

A parking lot on Portland's waterfront becomes submerged during a snow storm.

Q & A with Bill Needelman, Portland’s waterfront coordinator

What happened after the Sept. 30th event?

We now have flood response protocols in place that were not in place prior to September 30, 2015. Following that, we instituted flood response protocols. Now fire, police, emergency management, public works, and the city's communication director all have protocols in place for communicating with the public, and communicating within each departmental response to barricade roads and keep people from making bad decisions – like driving into flooded areas – in the condition of more water.

When we know that storms are predicted, the protocol suggests going out and doing proactive maintenance – checking the catch basins and the storm water in-takes – pre-deploying barricade assets so that it's quicker. And we have an assigned staffer who serves as an emergency services coordinator who takes the lead in the response.

Does the city have or is it working on a specific plan to deal with sea level rise and storm surge?

There is no big, sweeping plan. That is a future step.

But clearly you’re making some steps.

With the protocols in place, we’re doing a better job of accommodating water – both in terms of keeping city infrastructure functioning and keeping the public from making bad choices.

The other step we’ve taken is in the Bayside neighborhood. We engaged in a process called Bayside Adapts, where we hired engineering firm Woodard & Curran. They helped us understand what kind of engineering information is necessary prior to making large-scale decisions. They were able to tell us where we need better pipe information and better topographic information, for example – where the missing pieces of data are.

Bayside Adapts also helped establish our expectations for sea level rise and translate those expectations into the city engineering framework. So, for example, if we look at a scenario of the next 50 years in a particular area of the city, we can see that water is at 7.3 feet now will go to 9.3 feet and what would we need to do, infrastructure-wise, to accommodate that rise.

We’re also partnering with South Portland on a climate mitigation process. That’s in its early days, but it will help us evaluate adaptation opportunities in a coordinated fashion.

How are you engaging the public?

With the Bayside Adapt process, we asked the architectural and design communities to visualize what Bayside would look like under conditions of more water. We got some great visuals and some great thinking on some of the both smaller scale and larger scale improvements that could take place.

Probably the biggest takeaway that I received from it is that is that there's a perception right now that development in flood-prone areas is risky and is likely to make our community more vulnerable. But there's an alternative scenario where adaptation takes place through the mechanism of development. It's only at that point where people are making large-scale investments that you have the opportunity to change the world in a way that makes you more resilient and safer in the condition of more water.

The other thing we’re doing is participating in the High Water Marks Project, which is a federally-driving program. It documents historic flooding events by placing visual markers on site to show where water has come in the past. We’re taking it a step further, though. Alongside the historic water level markers we’re placing markers that will show high and low scenarios for sea level rise.

If you had to predict what the waterfront in Portland will look like in 50 years with corresponding sea level rise, what would you say?

I think that we may find ourselves 50 years from now gaining back some of that working waterfront that has been lost because the working waterfront uses and industries are just going to be better prepared to deal with that uncertainty than other uses.

Think about how many industries on the waterfronts work off of floats and floating infrastructure. A lot of them. I think floating infrastructure is going to be part of the solution moving forward. It's adaptive, it's flexible, you can move it if you need to and it adjusts to sea level rise quite well. You have to build that land-side interface, but flooding infrastructure is something that fisheries and marine construction and marine transportation already utilize. Residential construction, hotels and other things will have a harder time because they’re not as flexible.

We are not prepared to make the big move. It’s all bad news and it all costs money. But, we’ve got to learn to talk about it so we can make decisions. In the meantime, we’re going to accommodate the water as best we can and do a better job of getting wet.