I read a comment recently that has stuck in my mind the way the snow has stuck around, once winter remembered that snow was supposed to be part of the season and got on with it.

It does seem to me that winter has been like a driver stuck behind a slow car, who once the way ahead is clear, floors it, shooting forward at the first chance to make up for lost time, and speeds away, overdoing it.

Mayor Holaday of Newburyport reportedly said that the water/sewer system on Plum Island wasn’t built for the weather we’ve been having, which made me wonder … why not?

I suppose she was referring to the concentration of blizzards we’ve seen, rather than a winter unprecedented for its low temperatures and amount of snow. That kind of winter hasn’t happened, at least not yet.

I’ve been told that there will be a spike this year in older folks putting their snow shovels in a yard sale and striking out for a warmer climate.

For myself, I’m used to snow, being a New England fellow, with claim to years of Maine and New Hampshire living. Drought, earthquake, tornado, heat wave are mostly strangers to me, although I have crossed a desert in summer, survived Army basic training under Georgia’s July and August sun and watched the Maine forest burn until the fire reached the sea. That was the Atlantic being more helpful than it has been to Plum Island folks with houses hugging the ocean like it was a backyard swimming pool.

Then I read in an editorial that this ill-considered utility foisted on our barrier beach residents and property owners had never been built this far north, not that New Englanders would think that even north of the White Mountains is the Far North. That would be more like Alaska, I’d say.

Of course, that’s outdated thinking, when the polar vortex brings Arctic circle winter to the lower 48, while leaving folks in Seward’s Folly to toast their toes.

If these observations weren’t enough, we are told that on Plum Island, where there are seasonal dwellings, citizens need to clear the sewer system’s periscopes, and that wintertime residents should pitch in for their absent neighbors.

That has prompted mainland people with candy canes to wonder if they need to be shoveled, too, while trying to decide which would be worse: falling off the roof to avoid a collapse or a sewage backup in the cellar.

I saw a fellow just the other day on a two-story roof with a substantial pitch, clinging with one hand to the snow above him, while, with a shovel in the other hand, he jabbed at the snow near the edge.

Any way you look at it, it’s a sad story for Plum Island, first of folks putting off confronting a big problem until forced to act by a government agency, and then getting stuck with a lemon.

Our challenge is learning to think in new ways, so a crisis doesn’t become a disaster, according to Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and author of the 2014 book “The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.”

On Plum Island, the severe weather was the crisis, while the addition of the water/sewer collapse is turning it into a disaster, because we were unprepared to deal with something going wrong, something that was already known to be problematic.

In this case, a misplaced sewer design, insufficient transparency about water/sewer system deficiencies and an extended delay in acting to correct these problems have now led to at least 60 families being forced from their homes.

While the welcome to Plum Island sign is buried in snow, this notice greeted motorists about to enter the Plum Island Turnpike on Feb. 28: “PI SEWER EMERGENCY NORTHERN BLV/WATER USE ALLOWED ALL BASIN SIDE/NO WATER USE ALL OCEAN SIDE.”

“We can’t anticipate every disruption that might come our way, but we can develop an overall approach for dealing with the wicked problems,” Rodin has written, “and formulate specific plans for areas where we and our communities are particularly vulnerable.”

Hopefully, the master plan updates now underway in Newbury and Newburyport, and the emergency planning that is part of the Sandy Grant for our area will help accomplish these goals.


John Harwood watches Plum Island from his home on High Road, Newbury, wondering what its future will be.

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