Despite powerful storms, home is where the sea is

An aerial view of a slice of the Quincy shoreline just after last week’s storm passed. Damage was extensive throughout the South Shore.
An aerial view of a slice of the Quincy shoreline just after last week’s storm passed. Damage was extensive throughout the South Shore.
Photos by David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

SCITUATE — Stephen Berlo and his family have lived in a house on Scituate’s Lighthouse Road for 22 years. They host family gatherings at the water’s edge every Fourth of July. They paddleboard, kayak, and swim just steps from their home.

Yet on Friday, that sea the family loves so much came rudely calling at their front door.

The weekend blizzard was the fifth significant storm endured by Scituate and nearby coastal communities since 2010, testing the mettle of sea-loving residents, frustrating town officials and power companies, and tapping out taxpayers who pay for the cleanup.

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In the aftermath of the latest storm, amid days without power and flooded streets, the inevitable question arises: Why live so close to the water that is so often an uninvited guest?

Stephen Berlo’s wife, Tricia, says that life where they live can be hellish five days a year, “but other than that, it’s not bad,” he said. “Every time you have one of these, you say, ‘That’s it, we’re going to move.’ But you clean it up and say it wasn’t that bad. . . . Once you live on the water, it’s hard to leave.”

Around the coastal communities of the South Shore and South Coast, the refrain from residents is much the same: The disruption and cost of the storms are worth the joy of living near the water. Yet to some town officials and climatologists, the string of storms dating to a Christmas-week nor’easter in December 2010 is a sign that global warming is bringing new, destructive weather patterns that could cause a rethinking of life on the coast.

Up and down the shore, the damage is clear. In Duxbury, 15 people were evacuated from houses by the sea at the height of the blizzard’s wrath. In Hull, the storm caused extensive damage in Gunrock, and some neighborhoods saw significant overwash despite the protection of coastal barriers. In Marshfield, residents along Brant Rock were evacuated and the town sheltered more than 50 people whose homes had lost power and heat. Scituate’s emergency shelter housed hundreds of residents for several days.

Officials did not have estimates as of Tuesday of how much the blizzard will cost their communities. But already they know that their municipalities have spent thousands of dollars in police, fire, and Department of Public Works overtime, and racked up bills bringing in equipment to deal with the overwash in low-lying coastal areas.

In Scituate, the blizzard hit even as the town was in the middle of repairing a breach in the seawall that occurred in the December 2010 storm. The town had appropriated $500,000 for the fix, in addition to a $60,000 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. The work had been delayed due to difficulties getting the appropriate rebar in place; currently, the breach has riprap stones in place of a wall, to prevent flooding.

“Obviously, the issues [are] with sea rise and weather events that we’re being told will be more and more frequent,” said Scituate Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi. “We have to look at the paradigm for dealing with these infrastructure issues and housing in these areas and seek long-term measures, if this is going to keep happening with some kind of frequency.”

Those discussions have already begun. According to Fire Chief Richard Judge, one of the main problems with these storms is the flooding, coupled with the need to rescue residents who refuse to leave when told.

The town may subsequently look at legislative action to allow town officials to impose mandatory evacuations. Though questions about the legality of towns ordering residents from their homes remain, officials in Scituate started those conversations with Governor Deval Patrick when he visited the town Monday morning.

“I’m putting my guys in harm’s way because [some coastal residents] are stubborn, and that’s not right,” Judge said. “I would like to see the ability to mandatorily evacuate. They are putting people’s lives at risk, and we’re losing equipment because we’re going into salt water with it, and that could be avoided easily.”

Maritime and weather experts say the changes in regulations need to be more extensive with what is predicted to occur.

“The kind of storm that occurred once every 100 years is occurring once every 10,” said Rob Gilman, a meteorologist who lives in Hull. “I’m talking elevation, the height of the high tide, and storm surge.”

He said research has shown that moderate coastal flooding has increased dramatically in the last century, and as resilient as some residents are, changes should be made.

“The only great answer is to elevate the structure and allow storm tides to go below buildings,” he said.

Rick Murray, a Scituate selectman and Boston University earth and environment professor, said that intensive coastal events such as last weekend’s blizzard will become more frequent.

“This is consistent with everything climate scientists are talking about,” Murray said. “And it’s also been predicted that we’re going to have larger storms and more frequent storms. It’s hard to say this storm is due to whatever, but this seems to be the trend, and it’s not scientifically surprising.”

Discussions need to focus beyond just updating and maintaining coastal barriers, Murray said. Discussions also need to include a systematic retreat from the ocean.

“We need changes in zoning,” Murray said. “We cannot be building where we are building. We just can’t be doing it. [When] a house gets torn down, we have to set up systems with insurance and state government and federal government that there is a financial incentive to move away.”

That retreat has occurred at Peggotty Beach in Scituate, home to some 40 houses before the Blizzard of ’78 but fewer than a half-dozen today.

“That is what we call managed retreat,” Murray said. “It’s not going to happen after this storm, or in a fell swoop after the next or after the next, but after 30 years we might look around and if we have all these incentives . . . we may look around and there [will be] half as many homes on Humarock . . . or on Turner Road, with the people’s blessing because they have regained and retained their equity. And we’re not risking our firefighters’ lives hauling people out of their windows.”

But for those like Carol Ann Green, who has stuck it out through every storm in the 17 years she’s lived on Lighthouse Road in Scituate, or 83-year-old Joan Drummond, whose summer house on Lighthouse Road has seen eight generations of family pass through, the waterfront is where they want to stay.

“There is nothing more beautiful than looking out and seeing the harbor, boats, getting in the water yourself, whether it be by kayaking or sailing,” Drummond said. “I think any of these people around here you talk to will say, yeah, it’s worth it.”