A Firsthand Account on the Complexity of Weather

Blog Post
Image by author, Sharon Burke
March 1, 2017

Last week, the Resource Security team went up to Portland, Maine to kick off our Weather Eye project in the most appropriate way possible: in the middle of a raging snowstorm. In hindsight, we should have seen it coming. After all, we were the people with the data, and the data said that Cumberland County, where Portland is located, is one of the most storm-affected counties in the United States. We’re using several different data sources for our determinations, but in this case, that meant 31 presidentially-declared disasters since 1972, most being snowstorms or floods. In our defense, it was sunny and (kind of) snowless up there when we bought the plane tickets.

Just a few days before our trip, an average of 15.5 inches of snow fell in Maine in one 24-hour period, with some areas receiving as much as 30 inches.  Luckily, by the time we arrived, the storm was easing up. Unluckily, this led to snow melt during the day, which meant some flooding, and then freezing overnight. This also meant we were getting a closeup look at our data, which taught us some quick lessons about  how complicated weather disasters can be.

First lesson: a weather disaster isn’t always about the weather.

In the case of Portland, the infrastructure is part of the problem. To make this point, let’s first look at demographics. In 2013, 66,000 people lived in the city of Portland. This may seem minute compared to the other Portland across the country in Oregon (pop. 609,000), but in Maine terms, it’s pretty large. The entire state of Maine, after all, only has 1.33 million people. About 22% of the total population is in Cumberland County, and a third of that is in Portland or South Portland.

So, Portland has a good chunk of the population, and with people come cars, houses, businesses, roads, and utilities. Portland also has a port, which means money from tourism, fishing, and trading, not to mention the history and cultural identity, which can’t be measured in dollars.

This is all to say that in many ways, Portland is immensely valuable to the state -- and costly during a storm. This is only exacerbated when the infrastructure is old or aging, making it especially susceptible to being damaged during a storm.

This latter point was the next lesson, which we learned when we woke up our first morning in Portland only to find a piece of paper under the hotel door informing us of a water main break nearby. The note simply said that we have no water, but if we were thirsty we could get bottled water free of charge downstairs until the problem was fixed.

Our first meeting that morning happened to be with the city official who needed to do the fixing, and it was apparent that she had been up for most of the night telling affected populations to boil their water. That did not include our hotel, fortunately, but it did include a school.

This particular water main break seemed to be quickly under control, but it’s not likely to be the last of its kind. Parts of the Portland city water supply dates back to the 1880s. And the freezing, unfreezing, freezing, unfreezing that we experienced is not uncommon. The city of Portland is trying to replace their old water mains, but as we experienced, sometimes there is not enough money or capacity to replace the aging infrastructure fast enough – leading to breaks and flooding, which ultimately cause more damage to nearby roads, stores, and people, incurring higher costs.

Even though the infrastructure showed signs of strain, the people of Portland seemed pretty resilient! It was just another storm to them. Indeed, many emergency planners and responders we spoke to on this trip were pretty surprised to hear that their county was one of the most affected in the nation, in terms of FEMA declarations. Almost universally, they commented that they respond to storms frequently and often year round, but it did not seem that extreme to them. They didn’t feel any worse off than any other part of the country, and  quite a bit better off than places that have to contend with hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and earthquakes.

But as we learned on this trip, storms are complicated, and sometimes the weather just exacerbates underlying problems. People can play a definitive role in determining the full impact of a storm. As we saw on our trip, preparedness, capacity, and adept emergency managers can ensure that even when a storm damages a home or breaks a water main, people can get through it fine and soon forget that the storm ever happened.