The water came slowly at first, just a dark film sliding over the seawall. Half an hour later, it was 10 inches higher. Miniature waves from the Atlantic pulsed over the sidewalk, passed under benches, and jumped the curb, soaking the grass on the other side. Another hour, and the water was 2 feet higher. The pulses turned into violent overland surf. From Manhattan’s Battery Park—and other points along the coast—the water spread inland, filling city streets, crashing through storefront windows, and pouring into basements. This was New York on October 29, 2012, the night Superstorm Sandy slammed into the city.
Beginning as a mutant storm when a hurricane collided with a nor’easter and formed a hybrid more powerful than either alone, Sandy was pushing the ocean onto the shore. This kind of event is called a storm surge. Caused by breakneck winds and low air pressure, it makes the ocean temporarily rise to exceptionally high levels.
As the water continued to rise—another foot and a half over the next 90 minutes—it poured down subway stairwells and overpowered makeshift plywood dams. Inside the subway’s uptown control center, screens monitoring movement on the rails had been blank for hours. Now they flickered to life as water raced over the tracks.
Meanwhile, half of Manhattan was dark: The utility company partially shut down the grid before the storm hit, and the water took care of the rest, flooding nearly every electric facility operating downtown. In spectacular fashion, a generator at the East 13th Street substation shorted out, creating a high-voltage arc that lit up the sky and produced an ear-shattering boom that shook buildings for blocks in every direction.
As bad as it was, the destruction in Manhattan—nestled in the apex of New York Harbor—was only the half of it. Farther out, the water hit with even more force. In Breezy Point, a seaside community in Queens, 10-foot waves rolled off the open ocean and flooded the entire peninsula. Then came the fires. Sparked by contact between saltwater and live wires, flames engulfed more than 120 houses in mere hours. Meanwhile, the storm surge pulled off feats of impossible strength typically reserved for Hollywood special effects: It swept away cars, dropped a fishing yacht on top of a seafood restaurant, and piled up sailboats like a stack of children’s bath toys. It also killed—drowning, crushing, and sweeping people away.
By the time the water level peaked, the tide was 9 feet higher than usual. The storm surge had claimed 43 lives, destroyed thousands of homes, crippled New York’s public transit system, and cut off power to two million residents. The damage would cost at least $70 billion to fix.
Lastly, the storm set off a panic in local governments up and down the East Coast. New York was caught unprepared, but it wasn’t alone in its failure to brace for the inevitability of an extreme flood. From Atlanta to Portland, few cities were ready for an assault like Sandy. Now, four years later, scientists and city officials are still asking the same white-knuckled question: Are we ready for when it happens here?
For Julie Wormser, Sandy hit at just the right time. As the executive director of the Boston Harbor Association, her job was to make Boston wake up to the reality of flood risks. Sandy, she believed, was going to make her work easier.
When New York flooded, Wormser was finishing her report about the risks Boston faces due to sea-level rise and storm surges. It was a valuable resource, she knew, but would anybody read it?
History wasn’t exactly on her side. Two years earlier, the BHA had released maps showing how much of Boston might flood in a huge storm. The most extreme map illustrated a worst-case scenario, and it looked terrible. Showing different flood depths color-coded in yellow, pink, orange, and dark blue, the map looked as if cans of neon paint had been spilled all over it. Fort Point and the Seaport were covered in pink (meaning flood depths of 2 to 4 feet) with a few blotches of dark blue (flooding greater than 6 feet). Parts of the downtown waterfront were orange (4 to 6 feet). Charlestown, East Boston, and Logan Airport were pink, yellow (up to 2 feet), and orange. The streets of the Back Bay were multicolored canals. The map also showed flooding in surrounding communities: Somerville, Everett, Chelsea, and Quincy.
In the years leading up to Sandy, the BHA had showed its flood maps to anyone who would pay attention. Ellen Douglas, a scientist at UMass Boston who helped create the maps, was disappointed they didn’t have the desired effect: “We went to one meeting at the BRA”—the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city agency that oversees planning and new real estate development—“and we were accused of going around scaring people.”
After Sandy, things began to change. Officials at virtually every city and state agency I’ve spoken to—including the BRA—talk about New York’s storm as a come-to-Jesus moment. Suddenly, the scenarios in the BHA’s maps no longer seemed like abstractions, and it was easier for government officials to see the multicolored stains as proxies for destruction rather than the results of a useless academic exercise.
Wormser—who today serves as VP for policy at the advocacy group Boston Harbor Now—admits that Boston is lucky in some ways. Our harbor faces east, so hurricanes, which come from the south, are unlikely to hit us with their full force. The harbor also comes with protective features. The harbor islands serve as Boston’s offensive line, slowing down rushing water and knocking down towering waves.
But other factors conspire against us, particularly our low-lying land, which sits on dirt that was dumped into former tidal flats. When Boston was founded in 1630, it practically looked like an archipelago. The area comprising Beacon Hill, Downtown Crossing, and the North End was virtually an island, connected to Roxbury only by a narrow land bridge. Modern-day Congress Street, on the inland side of Faneuil Hall, was the coast. South Boston was a peninsula pointing east. The Back Bay was a bay.
Boston’s modern shape—an amoeba with appendages jutting into the surrounding bodies of water—is the result of the city’s first public works project. Soon after settling here, Bostonians began turning water just beyond the coast into land. They began by filling in marshes with trash and mud. In the 19th century, the project accelerated: Thousands of men with shovels and horse-drawn carts created the land where the South End, Chinatown, and the downtown waterfront now sit. After the city burned in the Great Fire of 1872, the rubble from destroyed buildings became the land underneath parts of South Boston. Surrounding the new land were stone seawalls that kept the dirt and gravel in—and the water out. Expanding the city took more than three centuries, but finally, by the 1950s, Boston looked more or less as it does today.
The consequence is that nearly 20 percent of Boston’s land is fill. For a while, this was just a bit of trivia. Now this fact has greater significance. Thankfully, Boston’s early city planners were prudent: They built the seawalls high enough to keep water out even during the highest tides of the year. The problem is that all of their planning was based on one unexamined assumption: that the ocean would stay put.
Today, we know that the ocean isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. Between 1900 and 1950 the seas rose slowly, likely only a few inches in Boston. But the rate has been accelerating ever since. In the second half of the last century, sea levels increased another 4 to 6 inches, and the trends are getting worse. On average, sea levels rise each year more than the year before. Climate scientists can’t say exactly how much they will rise in the future, but what we do know is that in the decades to come, sea-level rise won’t be measured in inches, but in feet.
How many feet will depend on a combination of luck and pollution. Greenhouse gases—such as the CO2 emitted from cars and the methane expelled by cows—cause the atmosphere to trap more heat, which warms the water beneath it. Warm water takes up more space than cool water. So as the oceans get hotter, they also get higher. Warmer air also melts ice, meaning giant frozen sheets on Antarctica and Greenland dissolve into the ocean, as if into a bathtub, and fill it up.
The causes of sea-level rise are simple in principle, but hard to model precisely. As a result, the projected ranges are wide. Uncertainty about future emissions clouds the picture even further. If the global community reduces emissions moderately, Boston Harbor is likely to rise 2.5 to 5 feet by 2100. If countries do nothing, the harbor likely will rise between 3 and 7 feet.
Every foot of sea-level rise significantly increases the chances of flooding. Today, a 5-foot storm surge produced by an unusually strong hurricane or nor’easter could flood parts of Charlestown, East Boston, the downtown waterfront, and the Seaport. But, as sea levels rise, it will require a less severe storm surge to produce a similar level of flooding. After 2 feet of sea-level rise, it might take only a 3-foot storm surge to produce something like today’s 5-foot flood. And, unlike 5-foot storm surges, 3-foot ones are pretty common, occurring several times per decade. After 5 feet of sea-level rise, which could occur by the end of the century, a 5-foot flood will occur with every high tide.
All of this boils down to a sobering assessment of Boston’s future: What would be a rare disaster today will become a once-in-a-decade event within a generation and a twice-daily occurrence by the end of the century.
Boston came terrifyingly close in 2012. Although Sandy caused catastrophic damage to many oceanfront homes and properties along Massachusetts’ southern coast, by the time the storm surge reached Boston the tide was low, so it went mostly unnoticed. If the surge had arrived a few hours earlier, coinciding with high tide, we would have had severe flooding.
Of course, we won’t always be so lucky. Even if no sea-level rise occurs, there is an almost 20 percent chance that a 5-foot flood will happen during the next 20 years. More-extreme floods are also possible. For close to 30 days of every year in Boston, high tides are one and a half feet or more above their normal level—here, they’re known colloquially as wicked high tides. If an especially big storm surge hit on one of those days, we could get a 7-foot flood, an event that could look a lot like Sandy. The chances of a 7-foot flood are low today. But as sea levels rise, the odds will get worse. The question is how much worse they’ll get, and how soon.
When Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, finally picked a city for his company’s new headquarters, he had two employees make a couple of calls. Jeffrey Bornstein, GE’s chief financial officer, reached out to Governor Charlie Baker. At the same time, Ann Klee, who had led the search for GE’s new location, rang Mayor Marty Walsh. Boston, the two executives relayed, had prevailed over New York and other cities in the great GE pageant and would become home to one of the world’s 25 biggest companies. It was a triumph for the governor and the mayor, so far among their signature achievements.
In all the excitement, though, one pesky fact has gone mostly overlooked. The property GE bought for its new headquarters, on the banks of the Fort Point Channel, has close to the highest flooding risk of any habitable city land. The story of how GE chose it encapsulates the bind political leaders find themselves in when it comes to planning for flooding in Boston.
As part of Massachusetts’ sales pitch to GE, officials presented the company with a menu of attractive sites. During one of GE’s first visits, Jay Ash, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development, organized a bus tour of potential locations in Cambridge, Somerville, Waltham, Weymouth, and several Boston neighborhoods, including the Seaport.
The Seaport quickly emerged as the frontrunner. Shirley Leung reported in the Globe that GE representatives and government officials rode an elevator up to the 30th floor of the Federal Reserve building near South Station to get a bird’s-eye view of the Innovation District. “They were able to peer down and see the bustle of cranes, brick warehouse buildings, and gleaming towers, all set along the waterfront,” Leung wrote. Back on the ground, they crossed the Summer Street Bridge and explored the neighborhood on foot. “It felt like exactly the place we wanted to be,” Klee, the head of the site-selection committee, said. Immelt was also charmed by his fellow captains of finance and industry. Jay Hooley, the CEO of State Street, spoke with Immelt as he weighed his options and said that Immelt “wants to be able to walk out of the building and be connected. He wants to be put in the flow of information and ideas.”
This was a remarkable moment. Here was the head of one of the world’s biggest companies deciding that he just had to be in the Seaport, a neighborhood that had been under water 100 years ago, and had consisted largely of parking lots and abandoned warehouses at the turn of this century. The Seaport’s seduction of Immelt seemed like a triumphant moment in the city’s campaign to turn the neighborhood into the Innovation District. But to climate scientists the area has another name: the Inundation District.
In most flooding scenarios, the Seaport is among the first parts of Boston to go under water. And the odds of flooding are even worse at the property GE bought on the Fort Point Channel. Once Boston Harbor rises 7.5 inches, which may occur within 15 years, the probability of flooding at GE’s site becomes alarmingly high. The chance of flooding will be 20 percent in any given year, or 89 percent over the course of a decade.
In climate-science circles, GE’s new site has raised a lot of eyebrows. On a flood map, I pointed out the location to Robert Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University, who has advised cities about shoreline development and flooding. He was surprised. “That certainly looks like a crazy place,” he said. “We dumb-ass, redneck southerners always expect you Yankees to be more environmentally progressive, to integrate more science-based policy in your planning than we do down here. It’s always disappointing to me when that turns out not to really be true.”
During an interview, President Obama once called climate change “a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention.” He added, “It is a comparatively slow-moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda.”
This is the perpetual bind political leaders find themselves in when it comes to preparing for climate-change risks, including sea-level rise: The exigencies of the present trump the risks of the future, however certain the dangers might be.
The bind affects decisions every day. One example of many: Morrissey Boulevard, an artery running the length of coastal Dorchester, lies so low that it already floods during those wicked high tides. A storm surge could put the road under several feet of water, cutting off an important evacuation route. The problem isn’t new: During the 1990s, the state promised to rebuild the road, lifting it above rising water. It still hasn’t happened. The state hasn’t even fully funded the design process, much less construction. At a time when public budgets barely accommodate maintenance, preparing for climate change often gets left out.
Unlike accessibility for the handicapped or pollution limits, climate-change preparedness is not mandated by law. For decades, many roads, skyscrapers, and tunnels have been built in Boston with scant attention paid to the dangers of sea-level rise. (A notable exception is the Deer Island waste treatment plant, which, when it was completed in the 1990s, was elevated several feet to account for projected sea-level rise.) Perhaps as soon as this month, the city will publish its very first report assessing all of these vulnerabilities. It will also tell us which systems are at risk (spoiler alert: almost all of them), but won’t specify which buildings, tunnels, and facilities are likely to be washed out. Scientific modeling, however, can give us a sense of the potential damage.
When a storm surge hits, water will first rush through East Boston, the Seaport, and parts of the downtown waterfront. It will make streets impassable and destroy electrical equipment stored in basements. It could also pour into tunnels, including on the T’s Blue Line. If the water keeps rising, as it did in New York during Sandy, the flood will spread. Water will flow inland, causing more damage, and breach neighborhoods including Charlestown. The tunnels of the Big Dig and electrical infrastructure could also be at risk. If the water rises even higher, the flood will expand until it reaches Faneuil Hall.
Like many other agencies, MassDOT got serious about flooding resilience only after Sandy. Last year, when scientists working for MassDOT created new flood maps, which updated those published by the BHA, they also issued recommendations to improve flood resilience. When I spoke to Steven Miller, a MassDOT environmental official, in April, almost a year after the recommendations were published, he told me that few had been implemented.
One recommendation called for MassDOT to buy temporary flood barriers that could protect the tunnels of the Big Dig. I asked Miller if money was included in MassDOT’s budget to pay for them. “We feel that can be accommodated [within the current budget],” he said. But then he added, “They’re pricier than I thought.” Where was MassDOT in the process of buying the flood barriers? I asked. “Very early,” he said. What would happen if the flood came tomorrow? Are the Big Dig tunnels ready? “One of the items we’re working on is a response to tunnel closure,” he said. “We haven’t got all the details yet.” He later said that MassDOT has begun developing a new plan.
The T’s tunnels are an even greater concern. Sandy destroyed New York’s subway system, and it’s still being fixed today; the heavily used L Train connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn will shut down for repairs for at least 18 months starting in 2019. But the MBTA still hasn’t published a study of the T’s vulnerability to flooding. Not that the system’s vulnerability is a matter of debate. Several times a year, water overtops a seawall during high tide and creeps within a few hundred feet of the Aquarium stop’s entrance. It is, for the moment, anyone’s guess how long it would take for the system to recover if a storm surge reached one of these stops and poured into the T’s tunnels.
At least two T stations in East Boston may be at even greater risk. The MBTA—which has plans to fortify a seawall in Charlestown to protect a bus garage—declined to provide details of its plans for protecting the subway system from coastal flooding. But, if New York’s response is any indication, the MBTA may construct temporary barriers when a severe storm is predicted. In New York, about half of the barriers—made of sandbags and plywood—worked. The rest were cast aside like flotsam.
In the private sector, resilient design features—such as installing mechanical equipment on the roof instead of in the basement, or elevating ground floors—are known to any architect or developer paying attention. GE, for one, announced in August that it would elevate the ground floors of some of its new buildings 4 and a half feet above street level. But such measures are not always mandatory. State building codes require only bare-bones flood resilience and don’t account for sea-level-rise projections, meaning that buildings constructed today need not prepare for the flooding risks they’ll certainly face in the future.
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.”