The Storm Is Coming
Politicians and climate scientists know what needs to be done to save Boston from impending doom. If only they would do it.
Some, especially in real estate, believe that worrying about the resilience of new buildings distracts from a bigger issue. When I asked Jamie Fay, a consultant who has worked on waterfront developments in Boston, about building regulations and flooding, he said, “If you’re concerned about this issue, you should be first and foremost concerned about existing buildings.” We were standing on the East Boston Greenway, which happens to be the flood pathway that scientists say will convey water to the heart of East Boston. He pointed toward the neighborhood’s center. “I can show you the sections of East Boston that are going to be under 6 feet of water, and none of the buildings there are ready,” he said. “What are we doing about that? Zip.”
Protecting the city is a problem that calls for a much bigger solution. No government agency has the authority to compel property owners to retrofit their buildings for flood resilience. Even if one did, the costs would be staggering. The BRA is trying to help by issuing recommendations when property owners consult them on other matters, but ultimately responsibility lies with the property owners themselves. “Maybe you need to take your burner out of your cellar and put it on the roof,” says John Sullivan, chief engineer at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. But nobody is going to make you do it. “We’re not here to make sure nobody ever gets wet,” Sullivan says.
There is a gold standard in Boston, a building that is actively prepared. Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, which opened in 2013 on the Charlestown waterfront, is designed to continue operating, without interruption, under any flooding scenario that might plausibly occur in the next 80 years. All patient rooms are elevated, there’s an electric plant on the roof, and the hospital has enough fuel to last for four days without any outside support.
The thought of Spaulding waiting out a storm immediately conjures one of the most famous images from Sandy, a nighttime photo taken from a helicopter of downtown Manhattan after the flood. The lower half of the island is almost entirely dark except for one skyscraper with its lights on: Goldman Sachs’ headquarters, which had been designed with flooding in mind. In one way, the Goldman tower was a symbol for how effective resilient design can be. But, in another way, it wasn’t. Because employees couldn’t get to work and the stock market was closed, the building was still mostly empty for two days after the storm. To the extent that resilient design is meant to eliminate interruptions in normal operations, it didn’t work—because the city around the building had been overcome.
What Goldman Sachs experienced after Sandy is sometimes called the island problem. Keeping the lights on is great, but it does little good if the rest of the city is under water.
Two summers ago, Bob Daylor, a 78-year-old engineer from Boston, noticed something strange in the Swedish port of Visby. Walking along the wharf, he saw that the pier’s pylons were clean—there were no barnacles attached. The seawall was also unblemished. There was no stain, as there is on Boston’s seawalls, marking high water. The clean pylons and seawalls could only mean one strange thing: Visby barely had tides. Daylor recalls asking a sailor if this was the case. The sailor said it was. Mainland Denmark and the nearby islands were blocking most of the tide from ever coming in.
After his summer vacation, Daylor returned to Boston wondering if his hometown’s harbor could be manipulated to erase the tide here. With his colleagues at Tetra Tech, an engineering firm, he drew up a plan that called for building dikes and enlarging Lovells Island to narrow the harbor’s mouth. He called the plan the Sapphire Necklace, a reference to Boston and Brookline’s Emerald Necklace of parks, and claimed that it would weaken storm surges and also shrink Boston’s tidal range by several feet. Cutting a few feet off the tides would essentially turn back the clock on sea-level rise. Several generations from now, sea level might have risen only to its present-day elevation. And in the interim, lower seas would mean much lower chances of flooding.
Daylor’s plan has been bouncing around government agencies and environmental organizations for the past two years, but building it—or some other harbor barrier—is a daunting idea; not a single dollar has been spent seriously studying its feasibility. The barrier could also wreak havoc on the harbor’s ecosystem, which Daylor readily admits. Still, few are willing to reject the idea out of hand for one simple reason: It is currently the only existing concrete proposal to save Boston from flooding.
“I love it,” Walsh said when I asked him about the Sapphire Necklace. When people tell him the job is too big, he points out that “in the 1870s, we were filling in the Back Bay.” Nevertheless, he acknowledges that another mega project would be extremely costly to the city without support from the federal and state governments.
In all likelihood, only the state could take on a project as big as building a harbor barrier. But Massachusetts has not even taken the first, relatively inexpensive step: a study of the costs, benefits, and feasibility of the Sapphire Necklace or a similar project.
When I asked Matthew Kiefer, a real estate lawyer at Goulston & Storrs who focuses on climate-change resilience, why the state hasn’t funded a study, he asked me to put myself in Governor Baker’s shoes. “Are people clamoring in the streets for this? Can you make the case for it in the budgetary process? Would the governor think a study was a good idea or would he say, ‘I’m concerned about creating a need for an infrastructure investment that I don’t have the resources to fulfill’?”
If you tried to imagine a city with the best chances of preparing for flooding, you’d come up with something a lot like Boston. We live in a state where climate-change denial is a losing political strategy; we’re surrounded by universities that employ some of the leading experts on sea-level rise and storms; our state and city are wealthy; and our political leaders acknowledge the risks of flooding and take them seriously. Ask a city official about climate change, and he or she will piously remind you that millions of dollars and years of effort have been spent on understanding the risks.
The problem is this: Projections, studies, and planning don’t protect people and buildings from flooding.
“I think they haven’t gotten to the tough part yet, which is doing something, which is paying for the doing something,” Ellen Douglas, the UMass Boston scientist, says. When I relayed this observation to Mayor Walsh, he said, “Yeah, that’s a fair assessment. That’s always the hard part—what comes next.” Walsh is under no illusion about the city’s preparedness. He says Boston is ahead of the curve in terms of studying the problem and creating policy, “Yet, if we get a tropical storm that hits our coast, very quickly we could be way behind the curve.” The question that should worry Bostonians is whether the city can catch up before the storm inevitably hits.
“I’m a little bit pessimistic,” says Robert Young, the Western Carolina scientist, with a note of apology in his voice. “I just don’t see us doing things too differently until the shit really starts to hit the fan.” History supports his view. New York City’s government got serious about flood preparedness only after Sandy hit. Californians saw their cities devastated by earthquakes many times before they enacted the building codes that protect them today. Even the Dutch—the model of environmental preparedness—failed to adequately strengthen their flood defenses until a storm in 1953 flooded 625 square miles of their country.
Young believes the problem is political. Leaders will “always get far more kudos for attracting GE than for setting aside parts of the Seaport that shouldn’t be developed,” he says. The picture he paints is bleak: As sea levels rise around us, developers will likely keep building offices and luxury high-rises along the shoreline, and governments will keep prioritizing short-term economic growth over sound, long-term planning. It’s a sad story. And because it’s a story about people repeating the mistakes of the past, it’s not a very satisfying one.
Grasping for some counterpoint of hope or redemption, I asked Young what it would take for Boston to do the “hard part”—to actually get ready. He paused. “It might sound cynical or mean,” he said, “but, yeah, really, what you guys need is a big-ass storm.”