For the third time in the space of a month, this editorial board is writing about the extreme weather that has caused severe damage throughout Maine this winter – and how best to respond to it.

Our Dec. 24 editorial, written in the aftermath of dramatic flooding and other storm damage, was focused on preparedness, communication and better formalized steps to access disaster relief. Since then, the extraordinary storms of Jan. 10 and Jan. 13 wreaked more havoc up and down the coast of our state, ripping through sand dunes, homes, businesses and other structures.

Reeling from the loss and alarmed by the never-before-seen extent of it, the overwhelming instinct – whether on the coast or inland – is to take immediate steps to repair and rebuild. For most of history, this approach was a sound one.

In 2024, however, it does not hold up.

Homeowners, businesses and municipalities, instead of asking themselves when they can rebuild, now need to ask themselves whether they should be rebuilding at all.

Recent weather events have been extremely stark for Maine. As a result, any stubborn push for reconstruction in flood-prone and disaster-prone areas needs to be given serious and formal scrutiny. All of the information available to us makes it clear, now, that the question of repeat natural disaster is not an “if,” it’s a “when.”


This thinking isn’t novel, nor could it be. After Hurricane Sandy hammered New York City in 2012, the city’s “rebuilding task force” required that every bit of rebuilding meet a formal threshold of “flood risk reduction” before being approved, introducing strict new standards for siting and construction. That is, if you were choosing to rebuild in the first place.

The term sometimes used for a strategy that puts relocation above reconstruction is “managed retreat.” It’s not a concept that naturally sits well with any of us. It is, however, firmly rooted in a painful reality.

Peter Slovinsky, a marine geologist with Maine Geological Survey, part of the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, told the Press Herald last week that, of all of the options available when responding to climate-related destruction, retreat is the least popular.

“Maybe it doesn’t make sense to keep rebuilding or adapting in some places,” Slovinsky explained. “If you think historically, humanity has retreated from the coast many times as sea levels have changed.

“In a way, these storms are a wake-up call. Already, we as a state understand that a lot of our coastal communities are vulnerable. We need to re-envision what our coastline looks like,” he said. “There is nothing telling us that the sea level is going to fall.”

This is not a call to forsake the parts of our coast that are most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change; local economies and residents need support and, if it is indeed time to move, need somewhere to move to.


Funding that might otherwise be used for rebuilding or resisting storms’ effects can be channeled into the cost of relocation.

For more than 30 years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been acquiring and demolishing the buildings most vulnerable to extreme weather. According to a 2019 study, that intervention tended to help the most affluent areas, with better resourced local offices better able to push past the red tape and win the funds. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act took steps to right that, setting aside $2.6 billion in federal funding over a five-year period for coastal climate resilience, designating particular assistance for more vulnerable communities.

Perhaps nowhere in Maine this month is the urge to push past the cold, hard specter of the consequences of our changing climate more evident than in the urge to magic back into being the beloved fishing shacks of South Portland’s Willard Beach, which were washed away by the tide on Jan. 13.

According to our reporting, no taxpayer money will go into the planned replacement of the shacks, a privately funded effort led by the South Portland Historical Society. According to the organizers, the new shacks will resemble the originals but be made of hardier material and engineered to better withstand storm surges. This is wishful thinking. It’s the type of thinking that, replicated at scale, would result in undue hardship and cost.

For now, along the coast of Maine, we are preoccupied with natural, material and economic cost. But the writing’s on the wall; the cost is going to become human and involve the loss of life unless we take the appropriate steps to move out of harm’s way.

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