When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, Boston was spared from massive destruction by five and a half hours. Had the storm hit that much earlier during high tide, we would have experienced flooding similar to New York and New Jersey.
Today, coastal areas in those states are still rebuilding from the devastation. Boston has a unique window of opportunity to devise integrated, comprehensive strategies for protection before the next storm hits.
When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, Boston was spared from massive destruction by five and a half hours.
There are many piecemeal efforts underway in Boston to address sea level rise and increasingly destructive weather. The city of Boston has been investigating vulnerabilities and is working towards a preparedness plan. The city of Cambridge is working on a similar initiative. The MBTA and Massport are also doing their own independent vulnerability analyses. And each of these efforts has their merits. However, none of them in isolation are sufficient to protect us from what is projected by 2050: two feet of water due to sea level rise, seven feet during a major storm, and 14 feet during a Category 3 hurricane. By 2100, sea levels are projected to elevate six feet. The metropolitan landscape will be radically transformed.
The issue is not geopolitical. It is geographic.
In analyzing the vulnerabilities in the Boston area, our critical urban systems — transportation, energy, health care — must be considered beyond municipal boundaries. For example, if any of Boston’s 11 major tunnels are flooded, this will have an impact well beyond Boston, temporarily shutting down the major highways throughout the region. The T is similarly vulnerable.
The Mystic Generating Station produces 15 percent of the Commonwealth’s energy, and it lies in the potential flooded area. If this critical infrastructure was affected due to a storm, it would have an enormous ripple effect — impacting homes and businesses throughout the state.
Food distribution, water and waste water systems, hospital services, and communications are similarly at risk. This interconnected collective of environmental, social, and economic systems are what keep our region functioning.
A broad, integrated approach is critical to address these large scale vulnerabilities. HUD’s Rebuild by Design is a step in the right direction — a regional effort that addresses the East Coast communities most affected by Sandy.
Rebuild by Design research director Eric Klinenberg recently wrote, “[W]e will need to develop and implement truly groundbreaking ideas, which can only come from the broadest possible coalition of partners. The stakes are just too high to do otherwise.”
A broad, integrated approach is critical to address these large scale vulnerabilities.
And as the anniversary of Sandy approaches, now is the time for Greater Boston to come together and affect change.
We must assess mitigation strategies that would protect the Boston area at the building, city, and regional scale. And not all these strategies need to be entirely new ideas. Cities have been facing the threat of water for centuries, and we’ve developed some pretty effective ways of coexisting with water. But it is critical for the Boston Metropolitan Area to undertake an integrated, large-scale effort—to look beyond the myopic scales we are used to, and to do so proactively.
Five and a half hours was the difference. The time for action is now.
Jason Hellendrung is leading Sasaki Associates’ work for Rebuild by Design along the New Jersey shore and New York Rising. Jason is also overseeing Sea Change, a Sasaki research initiative on sea level rise and storm surge which examines the systemic vulnerabilities and mitigation strategies for the Greater Boston area.