Boston In the Year 2100 Looks Really … Wet

Maps that project future flooding in Boston neighborhoods have policy makers acting now.

Had Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge hit Boston during high tide five and a half hours earlier, large portions of these neighborhoods would’ve been flooded with two feet of water.

“Preparing for the Rising Tide”

Although the storm has long passed, the Boston Harbor Association released a report last week showing that the city’s flood risk is only growing as sea levels continue to rise. (They timed it well given the powerful weather on display during this weekend’s blizzard.) The result of a two-year collaboration between local climate scientists and public policy experts from the Harbor Association, the report shows a soggy future for much of the city.

Consider this future: If sea level rises another five feet—a possibility by 2100—then the city’s coastal neighborhoods would flood twice daily at high tide to the same extent as if Hurricane Sandy had hit at high tide last October. “It’s like a bathtub,” explains Julie Wormser, Executive Director of TBHA and one of the report’s authors. “When there’s more water in the tub, it’s going to take less effort to make the water slosh over the sides.” If sea level rises even two feet—a possibility by 2050—another superstorm like Sandy would flood over 30 percent of the city. You can see what that would look like here:

“Preparing for the Rising Tide”

The good news is that publicity surrounding the Hurricane Sandy damage has made both the public and private sector more receptive to the report, which was rewritten in the months after the storm to make it more useful to people concerned about storm damage in Boston and elsewhere. “Nobody is in denial. They’re not questioning the numbers,” says Vivien Li, President of TBHA and one of the report’s authors. “They’re saying, now what?”

There’s no easy answer to that question, as it turns out. Policy makers, planners, and property owners are going to have to act together to increase resilience to coastal flooding over time, according to the report. This means that both the public and private sector are going to have to plan how to gradually phase in adaptations to protect buildings and other infrastructure, like relocating utilities and electrical equipment from the basement to a higher floor, and investing in things like floodwalls and storm surge barriers.

“The advantage is that it’s allowing property owners to phase in the improvements they need to make between now and 2050,” says Li, who explains that these changes would be too expensive for most property owners to implement in just one or two years. “We can’t be hit with all the costs in 2015, we don’t have that kind of money. But if we have until 2050, it gives us time to think about it.”

Mayor Menino announced the city’s next steps earlier this week during the press conference at which the report was released. He’ll assemble a Climate Preparedness Task Force at the cabinet level. Within the next six months, the Boston Redevelopment Authority will survey its municipal buildings and other assets (like MBTA stations) to determine their preparedness for current and future flooding. “Our focus is to make these structures along the water more robust, and to improve their flood-proofing and emergency practices,” says Brian Swett, the city’s Chief of Environment and Energy. The BRA will also write new climate change preparedness regulations for new development, which will require all future structures that are built in the flood zone to be able to withstand higher and more frequent flooding.

There’s no talk of buying out any of the homes or other properties located in the flood zone, even as Governor Andrew M. Cuomo is pushing for a buy-out of coastal homes in New York. “It’s not as if there’s a beachfront we’re pulling back from,” says Swett, who explains that a great deal of the city’s waterfront is built on filled land. While a buyout in New York would allow the land to be repurposed into a natural buffer against floodwaters, Swett says a different approach is needed in Boston. “Given where we’ve developed and how we’ve developed, we need to make sure our new buildings are prepared.”

The city may not be considering the idea of retreat for other reasons. “There is a sensitivity to the fact that people like living where they do,” says Li. “And until some fund is identified, the people at the city level simply don’t have the funds to pay for it.” It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to buy out the neighborhoods likely to flood during twice daily high tide in 2100—neighborhoods like East Boston, which have already been developed, or like the Innovation District, which have seen millions of dollars of new construction in the past few years. We’re simply in too deep to consider retreating now.

The report suggests that people may also need to get comfortable with the idea of living with water. It may be necessary to focus on “flood resilience”—that is, taking steps now so that we can recover quickly and relatively inexpensively when flooding does happen. “We’re going to have to accept that sometimes our basements get flooded, so we can’t store our family valuables down there anymore,” says Li.

Boston isn’t going down without a fight. But for a sign of how serious the challenge will be, just look at the cities to which the report authors are comparing us:  “We need to start learning from Venice, from places in the Pacific Island that flood regularly,” says Wormser.  “The water comes in and out, and they’re okay.”