By John Lynds
East Bostonians can take the snow, wind, frigid cold and space savers, but a new element has been added into the wintery mix that may be something residents here might have to get used to as the sea level rises.
Thursday’s ‘Bomb Cyclone’ that brought heavy snow and wind to the Northeast also brought flooding to Eastie’s waterfront.
Portside at Pier I, the Shipyard and Marina, Clippership Wharf and Liberty Plaza all experienced a good amount of flooding as the Boston Harbor spilled over into the neighborhood, and made waterfront developments like Portside look like a floating cruise ship.
For the very first time in Boston since record-keeping began in 1921, the water level reached 15.16 feet on Jan 4, 2018. This is above flood stage, the level at which flooding occurred, and caused significant tidal flooding in many waterfront parts of Boston-including Eastie.
“I waded into more than 18 inches of cold Atlantic water (on the street) near Portside at East Pier and about a foot of water at the marina,” said Kennan Thiruvengadam, who has been working with East Boston’s Neighborhood of Affordable Housing on climate change issues and strategies. “There was also more than a foot of water at the intersection of Marginal and South Bremen streets.”
Thiruvengadam said an astronomical high tide, storm surge, and sea level rise together caused the water levels to be so high. Of these factors, explained Thiruvengadam, the high tides had nothing to do with climate change. However, with sea level rise due to climate change it is expected to go up 8”-9” by 2030.
“Storms have happened before climate change, but climate change is increasing both the intensity and the frequency of storms on a global level,” he said.
So as storm intensity increases as does the frequency of storm surges like the one experienced in Eastie last Thursday. That coupled with an expected increase in sea level in the next 15 years could spell trouble for Eastie’s waterfront.
But could the flooding have been worse? Thiruvengadam says yes.
“Winds picked up after the high tide,” he said. “It was a quick storm. It did not last over multiple tide cycles, which would have compounded the effect. The blizzard-force winds forecasted did not materialize (except in Block Island). Snowbanks from snow we had received earlier and on Jan 4, checked the advancement of water inland to some extent.”
While the storm was over quickly and the harbor receded back to normal levels after the fast moving storm the impacts were still felt.
“Overall, in East Boston, it amounted to disruption of lives for people who use the waterfront or live there,” said Thiruvengadam. “The water was about two feet deep in places so they were impassable if you didn’t have the right gear. Some cars were parked or abandoned, and some trees had to sit for a couple of hours in salt water. Other parts of the city (like the Seaport district) and other towns in the state (like Scituate) experienced more flooding. The MBTA headhouse on Lewis Street took in some water. The damage was hard to assess from outside although the motors in there did not sound good.”
Thiruvengadam believes the flooding on Thursday is unlikely to impact FEMA flood maps for the neighborhood but it is likely to impact insurance rates, now that the insurance companies have seen a significant flooding event happen in Boston and know that the amount of infrastructure, buildings, cars, and people in harm’s way is significant.
“That represents liability increase to them so they will tackle that by increasing insurance premiums,” he said. “That’s very much like your car insurance premium going up after an at-fault accident.”
Thiruvengadam said there are some lessons Boston can learn from Thursday’s flooding event.
“Our warning systems need to get better,” said Thiruvengadam. “The general warnings that we did receive did not alert us to any significant flood risk. Luckily the risk with this one was low. What if it had been a larger storm surge or a storm that stuck around longer? How can we improve the alerting mechanism on both sides? We need to have protection plans in place. Currently, we don’t even have sandbags stored in an accessible area so first responders can reduce the risk by stacking them in the lowest lying areas. These first responders have be recruited and trained.”
The City of Boston did study Eastie’s flood risk and came up with short and long term plans for protection like the deployable ‘Flood Wall’ but Thiruvengadam warns that more of us should engage with the city to provide our feedback so the support from the city matches our needs.
At NOAH Phil Gifffee, the agency’s executive director, said Thursday’s flooding was just a small sample of the threat NOAH has been talking about through its ClimateCARE program.
“These are the kind of flood threats we have been advising residents and the City could happen,” said Giffee. :High tides, full moon, large storm surge – a recipe for disaster. We lost only two days’ work this time, but if Maverick goes down and Aquarium remains closed, a lot of businesses and residents will lose even more money. These kinds of storms, winter or summer, will only increase in number and intensity. That is why we absolutely need the City and agencies to expedite planning – and budgeting – for the documented flood plain entry points into our community.”
Giffee said the flooding in Eastie were in areas that were predicted to be susceptible to storm surge, Lewis Street foremost among them.
“It is imperative the City, working with private developers, fix that gap ASAP or water will continue to gush further into East Boston,” warned Giffee. “If not, the investments everyone is making, will be destabilized. People will learn it will not be safe to invest or live on our waterfront. That would be a shame. If we work together, we can do this faster. NOAH will soon be meeting with the Neighborhood Association, small businesses, our elected officials and various agencies to help raise awareness and create feasible and attractive solutions. The verdict is in. The time is now. Let’s act – and budget for useful solutions to preserve our neighborhood and businesses.”