* Officials seeking low-cost ways to prepare for climate change
* Just 13 percent of U.S. cities have done risk assessments
* Local moves less wrapped up in debate of climate science
By Scott Malone
SACO, Maine, Nov 20 (Reuters) - In the aftermath of the historic floods caused by Superstorm Sandy, some city leaders have begun to argue for the construction of sea walls capable of shielding the U.S. coastline from ever more intense storms.
But in Saco, Maine, storm protection comes in a far less glamorous package. Along what used to be Surf Street, owners of beachfront houses are jacking their homes up to allow storm surges from Saco Bay to flow underneath them.
The northeastern city of 19,000 people has reason to be wary of the water - over the past decade it has washed away six homes and in 2007 took several blocks of Surf Street itself. Today the street is a gravel track along a wall of dishwasher-size chunks of rock built by the city to blunt the force of storm waves.
The road "was damaged several times and we repaired it," said Dick Lambert, Saco code enforcement officer. But after a 2007 nor'easter swept away much of it, "We said, 'We're spending good money after bad. This time we're going to stop.'"
The Saco City Council in May also adopted a resolution requiring owners of waterfront buildings who rebuild or do substantial renovations to raise them 3 feet (0.9 meters) above forecast 100-year flood levels - a projection of low-lying areas likely to be flooded once a century on average.
Saco is one of numerous U.S. municipalities and states looking to small steps to fend off the higher seas and more frequent storms forecast to accompany climate change. Sandy's destructiveness is only likely to increase those efforts.
"People want to look to a big, bold project they can point to that will make people feel safe," such as sea walls, said Adam Freed, a Nature Conservancy director who until August was one of New York City's top officials on sustainability. But those big projects, he added, do not guarantee safety.
They may also be prohibitively expensive at a time when federal, state and city budgets are under immense strain, with lawmakers looking for ways to rein in spending.
At the national level, debates about higher waters and more intense storms get caught up in the politics of climate change, but for coastal communities the discussion is a simpler one - what do to about the more frequent storms their residents may face.
"Cities have been leaders on this," Freed said. "Just like there's no Democratic or Republican way to keep the streets clean, there is no Democratic or Republican way to protect a city. There is a pragmatic, practical way of doing it."
Saco's new rule grew out of a 2006 state report that urged Maine's coastal communities to prepare for the sea level to rise by two feet by 2100.
Diane Doyle, a Maine contractor who on a recent morning was overseeing renovations to a waterfront house her firm had raised to meet the new standards, said that more frequent storms have caught area residents' attention.
"Even for houses that aren't in the flood zone, we are doing more to be prepared down the road," Doyle said, noting that when she renovates houses that do not have to be raised by law, she still encourages homeowners to consider installing ground-level floors that can withstand water.
FEW ARE PREPARED
Despite the devastation that Katrina brought to New Orleans in 2005 and now Sandy has brought to coastal communities in New York and New Jersey, few cities have even finished planning for climate change, a recent study by JoAnn Carmin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found.
Just 13 percent of U.S. cities had completed such an assessment, according to the study, which in total looked at 468 cities worldwide.
Planners said they had few resources available to help their cities adapt to a changing climate - not just the threat of more storms - with a large number listing securing funds as a major challenge to their ability to plan.
Those budget problems mean that costly solutions, like New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's proposal to build a sea wall system at a cost of $20 billion, are unlikely to see the light of day, experts said.
"It's not just about technical solutions, it's not just about pouring money into infrastructure, but it's also about culture change and cultural expectations," said Brian Holland, climate-change program director at ICLEI.
Other simple steps cities can take include using low-lying coastal areas as parks, which can be flooded and return to normal use once waters recede, or moving waste-water pumping stations to higher elevations where they are less likely to be swamped and release effluent, Holland said.
Up and down the U.S. East Coast, local officials have adopted similar small-scale reforms that can make it easier for their residents to weather and recover from more frequent flood events without straining local budgets.
"There are a lot of stresses on communities and they have very limited resources and staff and also dollars for engineering," said Julia Knisel, coastal shoreline and floodplain manager for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management. "It is an incremental process."
Massachusetts is offering credits of permit fees for developers of some coastal properties that raise their buildings above minimum state standards.
Maryland has adopted regulations requiring coastal communities looking to defend themselves from flooding to do so with dunes and native plants, which can soften the impact of storm waves, rather than by building vertical sea walls.
In Freeport, Maine, town officials are considering installing one-way valves on storm sewers to prevent ocean waters from rushing into them and flooding parts of the city during storms.
"It's challenging because a lot of it is not high-profile, amazingly visible, politically winning projects," said MIT's Carmin. "Storm drains are just not a popular political platform. They're necessary, but people want to hear about education, about other things, they don't want to hear, 'We're going to improve our storm drain system.'"
RENAMING THE 100-YEAR STORM
Some experts argue that it is time to rethink not only the assumptions underlying 100-year and 500-year flood projections, but to change the way those risk assessments are communicated.
"If you tell me I can win the lottery once every 100 years, I'll probably never play. But if you tell me I have a 1 percent chance of winning every year, that puts me in a different position," said Louis Gritzo, a vice president at FM Global, a commercial property insurer that takes an engineering bent in its underwriting. "The way that risk is communicated is extremely important, as that influences the way businesses and municipalities make their decisions on where to invest their resources." (Reporting By Scott Malone; Editing by Martin Howell)