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The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Disaster(s) Preparedness

Posted by | June 14, 2014

photo by Eileen Willard

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 6/15/2014.

When Facilities Manager John Speight watched a pickup truck accidentally drive into what he’d thought was a well-protected propane tank at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm last weekend, his first thought was: “I hear the hiss, so I’m still alive.”

His second thought was: “let’s keep it that way.”

While natural gas poured from the crushed valve, John got the driver to safety, called 9-1-1, and started evacuating the Laudholm campus of people. Thanks to his and fellow staff member Sue Bickford’s cool heads, and also the fast and superbly coordinated response of the Wells Fire Department (and, ultimately, five other fire companies), the beloved 19th century Laudholm farm buildings were not consumed in a 3,000-degree fireball.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” said Martin Luther King. Not that most of us want to go calamity surfing, but still: we plumb the depths of our abilities when we are tested.

Disasters can bring out the best in us, but the odds are in our favor when we’re prepared for them. That’s common sense, right? But it means more than just having a “ready bag” stocked with batteries, fresh water, zombie repellant, and canned foods. (And don’t forget the can opener.)

An essential part of successfully planning for catastrophes is learning from previous ones. That’s why, this summer, the Wells Reserve is running a foreign exchange program… with New Jersey.

As part of a new project funded by the NERRS Science Collaborative called “The Sandy Dialogues,” the Wells Reserve staff will take local municipal leaders from Wells and Saco to our sister site, the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve in Tuckerton, New Jersey. There, they will meet with officials who played key roles in the Superstorm Sandy response and recovery efforts. Representatives from Drakes Island and Camp Ellis, two communities extremely vulnerable to storm-surge flooding, will get to learn directly from the New Jersey officials who lived through those “times of challenge and controversy” back in October 2012.

Our ambassadors will have the opportunity to study the planning and decision-making tools used on the Jersey Shore to determine whether the methods, reactions, and systems used there could be adopted or modified here in Maine. Flood maps, evacuation plans, dune designs, and more are all up for discussion. Our local heroes may even develop a greater appreciation for the collected works of Springsteen.

The teams from the Wells and Jacques Cousteau Reserves will then return to Drakes Island and Camp Ellis to present the lessons they learned in New Jersey and what leaders down there “wish they’d known then what they know now.” Our hope is that our planners and selectmen, our captains in our harbors and our State House, will be better prepared for whatever disasters may come. They may save us all.

This year’s hurricane season is forecast to be a quieter one, and the El Nino event brewing in the Pacific should further complicate the weather picture. Nevertheless, the coastal towns of Maine have quietly been studying, analyzing, and preparing for what we all still know is inevitable: it’s not a question of “if” for big storms, but “when.” So yes, we’ll all be more ready when the time comes. But, like that propane tank at the Wells Reserve, there are always surprises waiting to explode in our faces, if we don’t keep our wits about us.


Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, flood and fire. More at

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