by Beth Daley and Shan Wang
The owner of 48 Oceanside Drive had just repaired her $1 million vacation home from a devastating 2013 storm when the Atlantic came crashing through a giant picture window last month. The Jan. 26 blizzard marked at least the 10th time the house has been damaged in four decades — and probably the 10th time it will be rebuilt, in part with taxpayer dollars.
Scituate is the front line in New England’s expensive, losing battle against the sea. The coastal town, with few offshore barriers to curb a storm’s fury, accounts for nearly 40 percent of Massachusetts’ homes and businesses that are so flood-prone the federal government calls them “severe repetitive loss” properties.
Nearly all of these estimated 150 properties in the town of 18,000 have received at least four payments from the federal flood insurance program over the years, meaning federal taxpayers have helped foot some of the reconstruction bills. Though property owners pay for flood insurance, the program is in the red and relies on billions from the federal government to stay afloat.
And the flood risk is getting worse as sea level gradually rises. For decades, Boston averaged one or two seawater floods per year, based on the city’s tide gauge, and three floods annually in the 2000s. This decade, Boston is averaging around nine days of flooding a year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Now, a growing movement is underway to level the homes that cost taxpayers the most to keep dry. The state Legislature in July set aside $20 million in a bond bill to begin a voluntary buyback for repeatedly damaged coastal homes and convert the land to recreational areas or wildlife refuges. Coastal legislators are urging new Governor Charlie Baker to tap into the fund in the wake of January’s blizzard.
“It would be great if [the Baker administration] wanted to’’ launch the program, said Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat who proposed the buyback fund.
At least some homeowners have mulled the possibility of a buyback. A few residents on storm-tossed Plum Island tried to apply for federal buyout dollars but couldn’t qualify, said Senator Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican. “That’s why we need a state program,” he said.
The case for a buyout fund relies on simple economics: It might actually be cheaper for government in the long run to buy the most flood-prone homes rather than keep paying for emergency services, seawall repairs, and flood insurance claims that the “severe repetitive loss” homes are almost certain to generate.
The National Flood Insurance Program, which provides coverage against damage that private insurers won’t, has been particularly controversial, both for its cost and the incentive it provides property owners to continue living in hazardous places rather than relocating to higher and drier ground.
Though the insurance program once paid for itself through premiums paid by property owners, a series of punishing storms starting with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 changed all that. The program is now more than $20 billion in debt, forcing federal taxpayers to cover the deficit.
The state buyback fund targets the homes that cost the flood insurance program the most, including the severe repetitive loss houses in Scituate that, collectively, accounted for more than 40 percent of the $60 million in flood insurance payments to the town since 1978, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which manages the national flood insurance program.
But while the buyout program’s challenges range from the enormous expense of a buyback to public distaste for bailing out the owners of pricey homes, the biggest challenge just might be convincing some residents they need to go.
“This is your major investment in your life, and you can’t just walk away,” said a distraught Rosemary Dobie, a retired school teacher who lives in a Gambrel Cape that her family moved back from the water in Scituate after it almost flooded in 1978. She fears that if the government starts buying and destroying houses closer to the sea, it will only clear a path for the water to reach the next row of houses.
“It’s a very bad idea,” she said.
Coastal buyouts are gaining in popularity in other parts of the country, especially in New York and New Jersey following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Such programs have long had success in some inland states, such as Missouri, where riverine flooding can be severe.
Yet history suggests the program might have relatively few takers in Massachusetts. While more than a dozen homes were part of a federal buyout program that ran through the early 1990s on Peggotty Beach in Scituate, few coastal homes in the state have been bought since. That reluctance to leave — bolstered by the federal government’s continued payouts — means some residents might need to be forced out, some academics and environmentalists say.
“We need to have an unpopular but bolder approach,” said Douglas Zook, associate professor of global ecology and science education at Boston University. “When you make things like buybacks voluntary, it’s just not something that many people will sign on for . . . we need a more aggressive eminent domain approach where the State helps coastal residents realize the climate change reality.”
Holding back the sea
There was a weary, familiar rhythm to disaster work along Oceanside Drive and other coastal Scituate streets shortly after the blizzard struck Jan. 26. Emergency construction crews hammered plywood over shattered windows of ice-caked homes. A bulldozer began scooping up the large icy boulders lobbed from the sea that blocked parts of the road. Sump pumps hummed inside doorways as hoses sucked up water and released rivers into streets. Inspectors surveyed a breached seawall.
“Five years ago, folks here would talk about the Blizzard of ’78 and the No Name Storm in ’91,” said Patricia Vinchesi, Scituate town administrator. “Now we try and keep clear in our heads which storm did what and where.”
Parts of Scituate, including Oceanside Drive, are often at the ocean’s mercy. Few natural barriers exist offshore to slow advancing storm waves, and when they slam into sea walls, they can toss water — and boulders — as high as two-story windows, scientists and residents said.
And the height of those waves might be getting bigger. Ocean levels off Massachusetts have risen 5 inches since the 1970s — greater than the global average, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge-based national research and advocacy organization, argues that this seemingly small but steady increase in sea levels is contributing to a significant jump in flooding along the Eastern seaboard since 2000. Their projections show a tripling of those floods by 2030 in Boston alone.
While comparative data was unavailable, state and town officials in Scituate say the number of severe repetitive loss properties is surely growing.
According to federal data released to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, there are now 389 properties in Massachusetts considered severe repetitive loss properties, with clusters in South and North Shore communities. For example, there are 25 in Hull, 19 in Marshfield, 12 in Quincy, 29 in Revere, and 10 in Winthrop. Some of the repetitive loss properties in Scituate have had eight or more flood insurance payments, and one has suffered flooding losses 14 times. Owners of two homes in Scituate received more than $1 million each over time.
The federal government does not release the exact address of flood-prone properties, but the house at 48 Oceanside Drive is undoubtedly one of them. Even before the blizzard in January, owners of the property had received an estimated $750,000 over the years in flood insurance payments.
And flood insurance is only one cost to taxpayers to maintain flood-prone houses. Taxpayer dollars through a federal grant are paying part of the bill for 15 homes in Scituate to be elevated on stilts so that future storm surges pass beneath them. Elevating the house at 48 Oceanside Drive alone is expected to cost more than $100,000, one construction expert said. It is the second elevation the home has received in the last 12 years, according to town documents and officials.
Margaret Motyl, the Florida resident who owns the property, declined to comment.
The town of Scituate and the state have also spent almost $8 million to repair sea walls in the last five years and each time a major ocean flood occurs, hundreds of thousands more dollars are spent for disaster workers, the removal of debris, and other related items. The town just hired a fulltime coastal resource officer.
But Vinchesi, the town administrator, said holding back the Atlantic is too big a job for any municipality.
“It is so much bigger than us,” Vinchesi said. “We are just maintaining the status quo.”
Convincing people to leave
Three years ago, Congress voted for sweeping reforms of the flood insurance program that included a phase-out of subsidies and higher premiums to better reflect the risk of living in flood-prone homes.
Yet, Congress had little appetite for a fight with coastal property owners when newly drawn federal flood plain maps sparked widespread complaints about skyrocketing flood insurance premiums, including by some people who had never needed flood insurance before.
Congress then passed another law last year that rolled back some of the premium increases. As a result, the flood insurance program will continue to be subsidized by tax dollars. Some properties, including those dubbed “severe repetitive loss” were not subject to the rollback, but those homes can still receive taxpayer-supported grants to elevate and fortify them against flooding.
Governor Charlie Baker has been silent thus far on whether he would launch a buyout program. If he does not, Pacheco has filed a bill that would launch it.
“The administration will review all options to safeguard and support the resilience of Massachusetts’ coastal communities,” Baker spokesman Billy Pitman said.
The state’s buyout program, on its own, won’t stop the effects of climate change in coastal regions. Even if $20 million is available, it would not go far in a state where coastal homes routinely sell for more than $1 million. But environmental advocates say it’s overdue.
“It’s a piece of the solution,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon who also sits on the state’s Coastal Erosion Commission, which supports a voluntary buyout program. “This problem is only going to get worse.”