Camp Ellis still healing after January storms

Camp Ellis still healing after January storms
David Plavin walks through the Camp Ellis community of Saco on Wednesday. PHOTO BY LIZ GOTTHELF
Liz Gotthelf, Publisher

The scars from the storms that pounded the coast on Jan 10 and 13 are still fresh in Saco’s coastal village of Camp Ellis.

David Plavin of Lower Beach Road lost his patio. It’s happened before during storm activity in the seven years he’s lived there, but this time he’s decided not to rebuild. Instead, he’ll plant some seagrass and do some landscaping.

“It’ll be just as good,” he said.

Plavin also lost a hot water heater, but had no other damage to his home. Within footsteps from his home are the telltale signs of storm damage – front steps of houses several feet away from homes, buckled up pavement on now closed streets, garage doors broken and bent off their track.

“It just sort of reminds you how defenseless we are right now,” said Plavin.

As Plavin walks down the narrow streets of the seaside community, a Public Works truck slowly crawls by. He and the city staff wave and exchange pleasantries. Plavin’s on a first-name basis with these guys.

“The city’s been amazing. They’ve been here every day,” he said.

At a recent City Council meeting, Public Works Director Patrick Fox said on the municipal side there was “somewhere over $300,000” of damages. He said that while similar coastal communities may have higher cost estimates for damage, Saco has learned to rebuild to withstand the next storm better than other municipalities, putting utilities out of harms way and other measures. The city of Saco is hoping to get reimbursed for rebuilding costs from FEMA through a disaster declaration.


Over the years, Saco’s beach has eroded dramatically, ridding the coastline of its natural protective barrier. The erosion has been caused by the nearby jetty that stretches out from the mouth of the Saco River 6,600 feet into the Atlantic Ocean.

The jetty was constructed in the 1800s by the Army Corps of Engineers to create a smooth navigation channel in the Saco River. An unintended side effect of the jetty has been coastal erosion, caused by the displacement of wave energy and sand distribution. As sand washes away from the shore, instead of returning to Saco, it’s landing on beaches north of the city.

After decades of start and stop discussions, the City of Saco and the Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday signed an agreement for a $45 million federally-funded project that will create a perpendicular spur off the side of the jetty to displace wave energy.

This is good news, but it could take several years before the project is completed. The recent storm was worse than any in recent years, leaving many people fearful that the next storm could be just as bad, if not worse. The erosion mitigation project can’t come soon enough, and some are afraid that in the meantime, there could be more damage.

“By the time they get here there could be a couple of houses missing, and mine might be one of them,” said Joe Kehoe.

 Kehoe moved to Maine Avenue in  Camp Ellis four years ago, to retire by the shore and invest in a house he and his wife could pass down to their children.

In anticipation of last month’s storms, he boarded the windows of his house, but they came off with the pounding surf.

“The waves hit it like it was a feather,” he said.

Joe Kehoe stands outside his Camp Ellis home and looks through photos of storm damage on his phone. PHOTO BY LIZ GOTTHELF

During the storm, he stood by a second-floor window in his home and video-recorded the waves coming in with his cell phone camera.

“It was really bad, the waves kept coming one after the other,” he said.

As he filmed, the waves crushed part of the seawall that was protecting his property. It’s a moment that is not only captured on his phone, but is also etched in his mind.

“It made me feel sick,” he said.

In addition to the seawall, Kehoe had damage to his roof, foundation and porch.

A few blocks away, Ian Flannigan and Alan Waugh stand inside Huot’s, a restaurant and bar at 29 Eastern Ave. The two men are part of a team that a few years ago purchased the decades old seafood restaurant that is a fixture in Camp Ellis, and a popular destination for visitors from outside the community.

The restaurant is closed for the season, but Flannigan and Waugh have been busy. They’ve pumped tens of thousands of gallons of water out of the basement and are now cleaning up.

“You can see the water line,” said Waugh, pointing to a faint line on the wainscotting along the wall of the front room of the restaurant, which was flooded in last month’s storm.

After a storm last winter, they tore up the carpet and replaced it with plastic flooring, adding plastic trim along the walls. As they buttoned up the restaurant for the season in September, they made further preparations for the possibility of another storm, including surrounding the property with 800 sandbags.

It was a good effort, but it wasn’t enough.

“We can’t keep doing this. We’re still fighting with the insurance company from last year,” said Flannigan. “This can’t be our winter plan every year. If we have to do this again, we won’t be here. We need a Band-Aid fix pretty quickly.”

Camp Ellis resident David Plavin chats with Huot's Seafood Restaurant owners Alan Waugh and Ian Flannigan. PHOTO BY LIZ GOTTHELF

Like others, he praised the city for its efforts.

“Pat Fox is on it,” said Flannigan. “Everyone at the city’s been helpful, but there’s only so much they can do.”

This storm was particularly discouraging because the past summer season was outstanding, said Flannigan. There was a renewed interest in the Camp Ellis community. He and his business brought in ice cream trucks, other vendors brough food carts to the pier parking lot. The Camp Ellis General Store reopened, the long dormant Harbor Fest was brought back, and the city began plans to create a community center at the former Camp Ellis fire station.

“We want to be optimistic, but at the same time we have to be realistic,” said Waugh.

Flannigan’s family has owned a home in Camp Ellis on Eagle Avenue since 1939. When his family first owned the house, they didn’t have to live in fear of storm damage, because there was a beach to act as a buffer.  

About five years ago, the Army Corps dredged the Saco River, and transferred the sand to the shoreline. That year, the replenished beach protected the area and Plavin said it was the only year since he’s lived at Camp Ellis that North Avenue, which runs parallel to the coast,  didn’t need to be repaired.. The added sand has since eroded away and disappeared.

Some Camp Ellis homeowners say another dredging, with the sand placed along the shoreline, could be part of the Band-Aid fix needed until the spur jetty project is completed.

In late 2022, the York County Commissioners approved the $1.5 million purchase of a dredging machine with federal ARPA funds. The dredging machine has since arrived, but has not yet been put in service.

It has been proposed that the dredge machine be owned, managed or both by the non-profit Southern Maine Dredge Authority.

County Commissioner Justin Chenette of Saco said the Southern Maine Dredge Authority was not full in place at the time of the dredge purchase. He said the county has ownership of the dredge machine but is not in a position to handle operations.

“The outside nonprofit authority was created for this purpose. We just need to find a way to give it to them properly, abiding by the Federal Government,” he said.

Chenette said the county is working to get clarity around the best way to transfer ownership of the dredge. As the machine was purchased with federal relief funds directly by the county, rather than allocating money to an outside entity to purchase the dredge, there are very strict guidelines and rules county officials must follow, said Chenette.

“We can’t just have the dredge sit idly by with Saco Public Works while our coastline continues to be battered storm after storm and the Camp Ellis jetty continues undermining coastal infrastructure. We have to get this critical tool operational for the next dredging season. That’s what we intend to do,” said Chenette.

Chenette said the York County Commissioners will discuss the dredge machine matter at an upcoming meeting.

Saco Bay News Publisher Liz Gotthelf can be reached at [email protected].

Check out the new Saco Bay News shop at Spreadshirt and support local journalism.