AUGUSTA — Maine’s major roads are not conducive to avoiding hurricanes and tsunamis. The interstate highways and Route 1 were built to ferry people and goods along the coast instead of away from it.
That’s why motorists on those roads may not notice the culmination of a multi-year Maine Emergency Management Agency project: 130 blue signs with white arrows pointing inland toward safety and away from low-lying coastal areas.
The signs, which are expected to go up in the next few weeks, are the visible marker of years of planning the best ways to escape the coast in the event of a hurricane, tsunami, or severe Nor’easter.
The project was funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has directed more money at local preparedness in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, said Dwane Hubert, director of the Mitigation, Preparedness and Recovery Division at MEMA.
In the event of coastal flooding, evacuation signs will lead coastal residents and visitors inland towards Red Cross regional shelters and high school gymnasiums, while freeing up emergency responders from the task of directing traffic, Hubert said.
Certain parts of coastal Maine are at a greater risk than others.
According to Hubert, MEMA maps show that the Scarborough-Old Orchard Beach area is especially vulnerable to any sea-level rise, due to its low-lying, sloping coast and high population density.
Commercial Street in Portland is also susceptible to flooding, said John Jensenius, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray.
Further north along the coast, the land rises more steeply out of the ocean, reducing the risk.
A better understanding of the seismic and weather threats to Maine’s coast have also prompted the agency to act.
“If we look a little deeper in geological time, there are some events that have occurred here and we just don’t want to turn a blind eye to it in the future,” Hubert said.
These include tsunamis that could be generated by under-sea earthquakes at the Puerto Rican trench; “meteo-tsunamis,” or large waves generated by air pressure disturbances, and hurricanes making landfall. Although these events are less likely to strike coastal Maine than other parts of the country, Hubert said the impact here would be just as great.
“Maine is not immune from those things,” he said. “They’re not as likely to happen, but when they do happen we need to be prepared for them.”