Aftermath of Hurricane Bob in 1991 in Mattapoisett. Credit: Spinner Publications

MA - Hurricanes are getting stronger — but so is the South Coast’s storm defense

New Bedford hasn’t experienced a damaging hurricane since Bob in 1991. But emergency managers say advances in technology, infrastructure, and emergency response mean the region is well-prepared.

NEW BEDFORD — Joe Vieira recalls the broken moorings and damaged boats scattered on the beach near Padanaram Avenue in 1991, after Hurricane Bob hit.  

“There were some boats that did actually hit the causeway,” said Vieira, Dartmouth’s emergency management agency director. “[The boats] just kind of crumbled. Some that broke free on the north side of the bridge, they just ended up in a marsh.”

Hurricane Bob, the last hurricane to hit the South Coast, is a distant memory for most residents. But with Hurricane Lee projected to head toward New England later this week, a younger generation of South Coast emergency management leaders is preparing for the hurricane season’s upcoming peak.

National Weather Service officials say Massachusetts is “overdue” for a major hurricane. And they note that a warming atmosphere, growing coastal development, and sea level rise are slowly multiplying the risk of damages from a severe storm in the state.

But local emergency management officials say hurricane preparation has improved, even as the threat has grown. Advances in technology, infrastructure, and regional emergency response planning give them confidence that their towns will be adequately prepared for a major storm.  

The South Coast has managed to avoid the brunt of hurricane season since Hurricane Bob, a Category 2 storm, made landfall in 1991. The last major hurricane to hit here was Carol, a Category 3, in 1954.

When Bob hit, Brian Nobrega, New Bedford’s emergency management director, was in first grade, recovering from tonsil surgery at home. Fairhaven’s fire chief, Todd Correia, had just graduated high school, while Mattapoisett’s town administrator, Michael Lorenco, was just 6 years old. Wareham emergency management director Patrick MacDonald hadn’t even been born yet.

Still, these officials are taking the threat of hurricane season seriously. They’re conducting regular internal meetings and tabletop exercises with local emergency response leaders.

Growth since Hurricane Bob

The South Coast is much better prepared for a hurricane than it was in Bob’s era. Real-time hurricane tracking technology has gotten much more advanced since the 1990s, says Nobrega. Buoys, small aircraft, and satellites can send real-time hurricane data to decision-makers onshore.

These inventions, combined with precision storm-tracking models, now give local emergency managers a week’s notice to make preparations for landfall. That’s up from as little as two to three days in past decades, as with Hurricanes Hugo in the Carolinas in 1989 and Andrew in Louisiana in 1992.

New Bedford and other local towns, such as Fairhaven and Wareham, have reverse-911 phone alert systems that can beam out emergency messages to all phones within a certain geographic area.

“That would be an avenue of getting the word out pre-storm,” Nobrega said. “That’s our last resort when we’re evacuating an area. However, we could also be pushing out information, ‘Hey, there’s a storm coming up; we want you to start securing your property.’”

Correia said that Fairhaven is also experimenting with a technology called Crisis Track that will allow emergency response crews to track street closures and property damages in real time and delegate responses.

Other emergency response officials cited upgrades and investments in infrastructure as key in providing increased protection from storms.

Read more.