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April 21, 2013

Are we prepared? Disasters prove more costly as people move into storm-prone areas

NEWBURY, Mass. — There’s yellow police tape at the entrance to the Plum Island Beach on a Monday in mid-March. Behind it a generator is running. A Komatsu front loader and a Caterpillar digger sit nearby. Off to the right, a large backhoe is visible above rooftops crammed onto every possible lot.

What you can’t see are 13 houses that have been deemed uninhabitable, including three that have been torn down and three others that eventually will be razed, victims of yet another ocean storm.

About a quarter mile west, a crowd jams the Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates Hall for the monthly meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance. The group coordinates preparedness efforts for Plum Island and neighboring coastal areas here along the Atlantic seaboard north of Boston. Nine television cameras train on residents and property owners, most of them angry, all of them concerned about what’s happening to their community in the face of nature’s irresistible force.

One of them is Cheryl Jones-Comeau, who had to abandon her house temporarily after this storm, which hit three days earlier. She’s had a house on Plum Island for more than 30 years. In the past, islanders have bulldozed up new sand dunes during low tides to protect their houses from flooding and erosion. She wants to do so again, but the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection regulates pushing around sand on the barrier beach.

Comeau’s had it with that.

“I’m tired of DEP – they don’t want us living there anymore,” she says in the meeting. “There are houses that have been here a couple of hundred years. It’s too late. We’re here. We have to work with what we’ve done.”

People like Comeau who live in places prone to natural disasters know how to prepare, to have rations and a supply of water on hand, to bring patio furniture inside to limit damage from approaching storms. But the last decade has seen super storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac and monster tornadoes like the ones that swept through Alabama and destroyed one-third of Joplin, Mo., in 2011. A major Mid-estern earthquake along the New Madrid fault is expected any moment.

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