John Whelan: Cape Cod Lucky

“With a little bit….with a little bit

With a little bit of bloomin’ luck”


Lerner and Loewe created the wonderful song “With a Little Bit of Luck” to explain the philosophy of ne’er-do-well Alfred P. Doolittle in the hit musical “My Fair Lady.” Doolittle was a wonderful character and that song was just one of many great songs in the show. The song came to mind as I read of all the natural disasters that have struck of late. In 2017, it feels like the country has suffered a new disaster every week. I decided to look up the incidence of hurricanes on Cape Cod. We actually have had fewer large hurricanes than I might have thought. Hurricane Bob in 1991 was the last one to inflict major damage. Prior to that, we had Donna in 1960, Edna and Carol in 1954, and of course the New England Hurricane of 1938. No storm can match 1938’s toll. That was a Category 5 storm and left 600 dead and huge amounts of property damage. Carol was also a strong hurricane and left 68 people dead from Rhode Island to the Cape. Yes, we have had damage from other storms, but I’m thinking of a debilitating event like what just happened in Houston or Puerto Rico. So as I was walking along thinking about storms and the Cape, I started thinking that Cape Cod has been lucky. My friend Dana Eldridge wrote a book called “Cape Cod Lucky” back in 2000 and the title just stuck with me to describe our good fortune.

Warmer ocean water is thought to be the reason that hurricanes are becoming more powerful. Just this year, Hurricane Harvey’s terrible totals were 84 dead and $190 billion in damages. Irma killed 95 people and had an estimated $90 billion in costs, and Maria, 49 dead and nearly $80 billion of damages. In another “natural disaster,” the California wildfires have brought close to 50 dead and at least $65 billion in damages. We seem to have more tornadoes now and earthquakes also seem to be occurring more regularly. Some scientists feel that the incidence of earthquakes can be tied to the increased fracking going on in the middle of this country. We cannot be certain that is true, but there is no question that earthquakes are more frequent.

People have lost their homes and businesses and there are people still living without power and water. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is the federal government’s department for disaster relief. FEMA’s resources have been badly stretched and new emergency funding has had to be granted. Prior to all these recent disasters, FEMA was $25 billion in the red. Much of that deficit was caused by the expenses of dealing with Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Congress tried to address that $25 billion deficit in 2012. They decided to adjust the premiums charged for flood plain insurance. The premiums had not adequately reflected the potential risk. In effect, FEMA had been subsidizing each and every flood plain policy holder. So to adjust the premiums and reduce the FEMA deficit, Congress established a new level of premiums for flood insurance. The Biggert-Waters Act of 2012 established new flood zones and higher premiums. The increases were huge and homeowners suffered sticker shock. Rates doubled and tripled and, in rare cases, were up five times the prior year. Naturally, there was a strong pushback from homeowners and businesses. The idea of trying to charge appropriate premiums and make up the deficit at the same time just didn’t work. So Congress paid attention and changed the premiums again in 2014. The new plan helps primary homeowners and businesses, but does little for secondary homeowners. Their premiums are sky-high and continuing to rise.

I called Sean O’Brien at the Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee to ask about emergency preparedness in Chatham and on Cape Cod. Sean spoke of the various types of potential emergencies we could face. Blizzards, hurricanes, floods, extreme hot weather and radiation are the areas of concern. He pointed out that he is the coordinator of the committee that has a member from each town in the county. Deputy Police Chief John Cauble is the representative from Chatham. I had visited the subject of preparedness in a Chronicle article about five years ago and spoke to Deputy Cauble at that time. I checked in with him again and found out that Chatham has a detailed plan for disasters. The town has held a number of exercises to prepare. The police department, in coordination with the health department, has scheduled drills as if a real disaster were happening. He also pointed out that Chatham had a service for those who might require assistance in an emergency. The Chatham Emergency Management Special Assistance Information Form is available at the police department’s page on the town's website. Those who might need assistance are encouraged to register on line and would be checked on in an emergency. I thank Deputy Cauble for his assistance.

Getting back to Sean O’Brien and Barnstable County, he pointed out that each emergency is different and that planning has to allow for all sorts of possibilities. Extreme heat or cold could occur. We could have rain for days and serious flooding. Ice storms are possible. Radiation and its effects are an issue, and of course hurricanes and the other coastal storms. He referred me to Shannon Jarbeau at the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. The Extension is charged with educating the public about existing resources in many areas. The information is research-based and is part of a nationwide program with land grant universities like the University of Massachusetts. There are a number of articles on various subjects and can be read on line or in a printed brochure available at their website.

Shannon had a great deal of knowledge about flood plain insurance. She told me that about 35 percent of those in the flood plain zone had purchased flood plain coverage on Cape Cod. I was surprised that so many were not covered. She mentioned the high cost of premiums (average annual premium in Barnstable County is $2,400) and the fact that many homeowners assume wrongly that flood coverage is part of their homeowner policy. I think a little attention by homeowners to what they actually have insured is in order.

I feel I got an education from my talks with Deputy Cauble, Sean O’Brien and Shannon Jarbeau. A little knowledge can help all of us prepare for the disaster that might be right around the corner. Cape Cod definitely has been lucky of late, but as we all know, luck does not last forever. Get a plan and a kit and handle the next emergency as best possible. Happy Halloween!