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Scituate officials still sizing up storm damage

Posted by dinouye  January 5, 2011 10:24 AM

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By Beth Daley, Globe Staff

Neil Duggan picked his way across a lawn littered with seaweed, a dead mussel, and thousands of fist-size, smooth gray stones lobbed there from the sea like artillery.

Duggan, Scituate’s building commissioner, peered under the oceanfront home, checking for structural damage and whether saltwater had corroded the home’s electric meter. Other inspectors examined whether gas meters and lines were damaged by the worst flooding residents in this seaside neighborhood say they have seen in at least three decades.

While memories of the nor’easter nine days ago have melted along with the snow in most Bay State residents’ minds, the daunting cleanup is just beginning for many residents along and near Oceanside Drive.

At least 400 Scituate homes sustained damage from the post-Christmas nor’easter — dozens will require extensive repairs — and Duggan, state and town safety officials, and gas and electrical inspectors took to the streets in teams yesterday to assess damage and ensure no buildings were at risk of a fire or other harm. Two homes burned down, probably as a result of electrical problems related to flooding from the storm.

Standing near a 60-foot breach of a sea wall, Duggan pointed to a broken second-story window boarded up with plywood and explained why some homes had water damage on the second floor.

“The waves hit the sea wall and the water went up 40 feet,’’ he said. “And then forward.’’

Yesterday, men in Bobcats pushed thousands of stones into piles outside homes. A bulldozer carried an enormous boulder to help patch up the 1930s-era constructed sea wall. Shingles littered the landscape.

Passersby gawked at one garage filled almost to its ceiling with stones. One family was excavating their basement, hauling out bikes, mattresses, and a waterlogged washing machine into the cold air outside. Residents uneasily joked about another storm that could hit Friday.

Gary Elsmore was looking for a Federal Emergency Management Agency official: He heard through the grapevine they were canvassing the neighborhood.

“I’m hoping they can help me,’’ he said. Elsmore has lived on a side street for 30 years and never was flooded; as a result he let his flood insurance lapse. But the December storm filled his basement with water.

“The furnace was gone, all my tools,’’ said Elsmore. “I have never seen water like this in all the time I’ve lived here.’’

However, flooding in the neighborhood is hardly new. The area where the 60-foot sea wall breach occurred juts out a bit into the water and faces northeast, so it is often hit first by winter storms.

The high tide that coincided with the storm’s fierce winds pushed water over the sea wall, into the street, and down into a hollow filled with homes.

Scituate stands on ground moraine — gravelly, sandy material left from the last ice age — and the seafloor and beaches are constituted largely of smooth round stones and boulders that waves carry on shore during storms, said Jim O’Connell, a coastal geologist and consultant who knows the area.

“Scituate is going to continue to get hit time after time,’’ said O’Connell. He said one of the best solutions in hazardous, densely developed coastal areas is to build or rebuild smarter, such as moving a building as far back on a lot from the ocean as possible, and elevating the house on open pilings to allow storm waves to pass below the structure.

But residents said while they do get hit by storms, really bad events like this one rarely occur. The worst storm was in 1978, most agree. The next one was in 1991, almost 20 years ago. That’s why residents don’t usually entertain thoughts about moving.

“You expect inconvenience,’’ said Eric Damon, who bought a house across the street from the ocean that was spared because it is on a rise in the road and elevated.

During some storms he gets lobster traps and dead fish in his yard, but it is a small price to pay, he said, because “nine months of the year it is fantastic.’’

Duggan said it will probably take weeks before a dollar figure is placed on damage in Scituate.

Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the state could be eligible for federal aid if public infrastructure damage tops $8.3 million.

In addition to Scituate, Gloucester, Rockport, Hull, Quincy, and other coastal communities were hit hard by the storm. It’s not clear whether private homeowners will qualify for federal aid.

Yesterday afternoon, Duggan, exhausted from over a week of getting up at 5 a.m. and getting to bed late, continued his methodical search for any sign of potential harm.

At a mobile command center near the flooded area, Nicole Harris, Duggan’s assistant, used different color highlighters to label houses on a map that inspectors identified as having structural, water, electrical, or gas damage.

Duggan found one positive in the aftermath: “I think some people will think about building up [on pilings] after this,’’ he said.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

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