Our changing weather patterns:
“Our Town” *
May 9 — May 22, 2006
Halfway up the East Coast, my leisurely trip north was interrupted by a weather crisis at home. A stationary high sitting off the East Coast was blocking storms from marching across the continent then drifting harmlessly out to sea. Instead a giant line of storms were drawing water up from the Gulf of Mexico then dumping it on New England. Every night on the weather channel I was mesmerized by arrows of rain sweeping in off the Atlantic directly onto Ipswich Massachusetts. My hometown was about to become the epicenter for the Floods of 2006.
Ipswich is a small town 40 miles north of Boston. Our town only boasts 9,000 people but our beaches and islands were the shooting location for both the Crucible and The Thomas Crown Affair. To outsiders we are known mostly for our clams, our old homes and our favorite son John Updike, who made a successful career for himself by chronicling the sexual peccadilloes of our leading citizens. He claimed he got all his best ideas sitting in church, so who am I to dispute him?
Driving down our narrow streets is a little like driving through a movie set. We have more small old precolonial homes than any other community in the United States. One of our former houses was moved lock, stock and barrel to Washington to be an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. It is said that the reason we still have so many of our old homes is because we never had the money to remodel them, nor the good sense to tear them down.
Like most coastal New England towns, our central village is built around a river. During the 18th and 19th Centuries the Ipswich River provided power to run small lace and textile mills. Today the old mills make trendy sites for restaurants, newsstands and art galleries. Artists at the art gallery openings will gleefully show you which page they appeared on in Updike’s latest novel. A scattering of real estate and law offices fill in the rest of the sites. Our largest business is EBSCO, a high tech publishing company that sits above the dam that used to power the 18th Century Ipswich Hosiery Company.
As I said, our town only boasts 9,000 people, mostly good people who volunteer on our town boards and support the local Historic Society. Many of them worked long hours to convince the town to build a new footbridge to tie together the two main streets that lie on either side of the river. Oh yes, almost forgot, we have four old stone arch bridges in town, one of them the oldest in the country, and two newer nineteenth century bridges up above the dam.
* with apologies to Thornton Wilder
But on May 9th everything changed. My flight from New York City was delayed by hurricane force winds and another plane was struck by lightning. But nobody seemed too concerned about the storm, just another Northeaster that would eventually blow out to sea.
But things looked worse by Mother’s Day. We had to use the old Mill Road to drive down to Boston, because all the main thoroughfares leading out of town were closed. Monday morning we woke to the unprecedented news that school would be closed on account of rain! The river was rising and most of the town’s main streets were flooding.
School was canceled again on Tuesday but the rain let up enough in the afternoon so we could all venture outside to see the damage. Two of the old stone bridges had to be closed making the center of the town an island. You couldn’t get there on foot or by car. A river, three foot deep, was rushing down South Main Street and into everyone’s basements. The water was already neck high in the Italian restaurant. Its large wooden tables floated around the dining room. Ten million dollars worth of expensive books and pamphlets sloshed about in five feet of water in the EBSCO building.
The problem seemed to be that not yet opened footbridge. Its low metal frame was acting like a dam to divert water down South Main Street and into the EBSCO Building. Fortunately it was May so there was no ice to block the dam further. The police chief ordered officers to move gawkers off the Choate Bridge because the footbridge above it might give way and sweep them downstream. On the nearby Merrimac River, two pedestrians were seen clinging to bridge that was being swept out to sea. Later we heard they had successfully swum to shore.
By May 22 it was mostly over. Eleven inches of rain had fallen in less than two weeks. The river had crested 10.67 feet above normal. One person died of a heart attack after his car stalled in rising waters in neighboring Topsfield, another abandoned his car and was found drowned in a tangle of bushes only 300 feet away. A third man made it to a shelter but was so cold from hypothermia he couldn’t speak. The entire town heard the blast when lightning exploded a hundred foot pine tree scattering log sized chunks of wood in all directions.
One of our bridges moved several inches and people spotted water squirting out of the stone foundation of another. Our two upriver bridges would be out of commission indefinitely. Fifty percent of our businesses suffered major damage and half of our homes had flooded basements. Thirty people cheered when a truck finally arrived with a special shipment of pumps sent directly from the factory in New Hampshire. EBSCO sustained $10 million dollars in damages, including $300,000 a day in lost wages and revenues. (64)
But what I was really interested in, was how our town would respond. Would we simply breath a sigh of relief and rebuild bigger and better than before, or would we learn from our mistakes?
The biggest mistake seemed to be the footbridge. Many people had worked extremely hard to obtain funding for the bridge which would allow pedestrians to cross the river and sit in gazebos on attractive brick patios on either side of the river. But it seemed obvious that the footbridge was an engineering failure almost as significant to Ipswich as the levee failures had been to New Orleans. The reasons were basically the same. New Orleans’ levees had been built to withstand a 100 year storm based on a hundred years worth of data compiled in 1929! Our footbridge had been built to withstand a 100 year storm based on a hundred years of data compiled in 1985.
However, everybody knows that hundred year storms aren’t what they used to be. I calculate that I have already lived through half a dozen “hundred year storms” in my lifetime. Ipswich has had at least two 100 year storms in the past six years. Last autumn meteorologists concluded that based on world weather patterns we entered a new era of more intense storms starting in 1995. From now on insurance companies will base their premiums on this new data. If the town takes over ownership of the footbridge from the state will it just be setting itself up for future liabilities? Will Ipswich become an another irreversible mistake?
Ipswich also presented a golden opportunity to investigate how the federal flood insurance program really works. I started to make some calls. But none of the affected businessmen had policies. More significantly, none of the lawyers, real estate agents or insurance company owners could tell me how the program worked or why they didn’t have policies. Here was a program that offered artificially low premiums specially designed to protect people in flood prone areas, but even the best informed businessmen couldn’t tell me why they didn’t own the insurance.
I soon discovered that this has always been the problem with the federal flood insurance program. Premiums from many policy holders are supposed to cover those few who get in trouble in any particular year. At the same time, the program is supposed to protect taxpayers from having to bail out communities after every flood. But the program has never worked because most people don’t realize they are eligible for the inexpensive insurance.
The only time people hear about flood insurance is when they apply for a mortgage and they discover they have to buy the mandatory federal flood insurance because their house is in a 100 year floodplain. When this happens most people simply turn around and hire a local engineer to take elevations to dispute the flood maps. However, it usually costs far more to fight the added cost than to simply buy the inexpensive insurance. Homeowners generally pay $300 to $400 a year to a federal flood Insurance policy that provides them with $250,000 in coverage. So our Italian restaurant would have only paid $1,800 over six years for coverage and potentially been reimbursed half a million dollars for its two ‘hundred year” loses in 2001 and 2006. (65)
But the main reason most people don’t take advantage of federal flood insurance is that in their heart of hearts they don’t really believe they are going to need it. Floods are only something that happens to people in other places like Florida and New Orleans, not on a peaceful river in New England! The result is that the federal flood insurance program only takes in $2.2 billion dollars a year in premiums. Last year it had to “borrow” money from taxpayers to pay for the $25 billion dollars in claims from Katrina, and the program was already $2 billion dollars in the hole from former storms. The borrowed money will have to paid back with interest.
But this still didn’t explain why nobody in Ipswich had the inexpensive policies. Little did we know that while we were cleaning up after the storm, a Senate subcommittee was marking up a bill to try to rectify that situation. The process had started in the Fall of 2005 when Barney Frank, one of our Congressmen from Massachusetts, jointly introduced a bill to increase the number of federal flood insurance premium holders by expanding flood zones from areas affected by a 100-year storm to areas affected by a 500-year storm. Increasing the size of flood zone areas would bring millions more people into the mandatory program, both insuring them and making the program more fiscally viable.
What happened? Nothing! Lobbyists jumped all over the bill. Real estate agents said the bill would increase the cost of buying homes, and homebuilders argued that it would ruin the economy because people might stop building in flood zones. But wouldn’t most people think not building in a flood zone is a pretty good idea? But most people never heard about the bill. Lobbyists went to Congressman Gary Miller, a former homebuilder from California, who quietly made an amendment to table the bill for further study.
It turned out that FEMA actually didn’t have any decent maps of floods caused by 500-year storms. So Congress took several steps back, and while we were drying out our basements on Sunday May 21st, committee members marked up a new bill to remove the exemption for mandatory flood insurance for houses and businesses built behind dams and levees. It had taken several days of telephone calls to legislative aides and Senate subcommittee members but I finally had the answer to why no one in Ipswich had federal flood insurance. We lived below a dam — a dam that had “protected” us almost as well as the levees had “protected” New Orleans!
If downtown Ipswich had been protected by the Federal Flood Insurance Program what would have happened? Our Italian restaurant probably would have been raised eleven feet above the 100-year flood level to conform to the federal flood insurance program’s mandatory building codes. Its customers would have only been allowed to dine upstairs or on open outside patios. The restaurant would have saved itself tens of thousands of dollars in rebuilding costs. EBSCO would have been required to move its publications to a warehouse on higher ground. Businessmen would have been required to suspend their furnaces from basement ceilings and move their kitchens and electric panels to higher floors. The town and state would have avoided embarrassment by building its footbridge with a graceful arch high enough to avoid a 500-year storm. Taxpayers would not have been asked to put up millions more dollars in disaster relief to help our town. Not a bad outcome for a simple piece of legislation that had been stalled in Congress because of a group of wrong headed but highly effective lobbyists.
Excerpt from “Just Seconds From the Ocean,” available in local bookstores and at a discount to Coastlines Project supporters.