A man wades across State Street in Boston, flooded by water from Boston Harbor.
A man wades across State Street in Boston, flooded by water from Boston Harbor at high tide during the March 2 nor'easter. Bill Sikes/AP

Boston has been planning for climate change, but plans couldn’t buffer it from this winter’s fierce storms.

Trendy restaurants, $3 million condominiums, and upscale hotels line the waterfront of Boston’s fashionable Seaport District. Many of them were built in just the past 10 years, with sea-level rise already an acknowledged threat.

But when two destructive nor’easters slammed into Massachusetts Bay early this year, streets and stores flooded, cars drowned, and water poured into a Blue Line subway station.

“The storms served as a wake-up call,” said Mia Mansfield, program manager for Climate Ready Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh’s resilience initiative. “People really didn’t expect to see flooding to that extent and to see how vulnerable the city is to storms and storm surge.” Because sea levels around Boston rose through the 20th century, storm surges and high tides now start from a higher baseline, and more areas are prone to flooding than before.  

Much of Boston’s land didn’t exist when the Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in 1630. Over the centuries, fill turned tidal marshes and shorelines into neighborhoods, now low-lying areas susceptible to flooding. That includes the Seaport as well as more socially vulnerable communities in East Boston, Charlestown, and South Boston.

By 2070, with a three-foot sea level rise—the low end of current projections—those areas could be inundated at high tide every month, according to a 200-page report issued by Climate Ready Boston in December 2016. That will put 88,000 people at risk of flooding and could knock out major rail and road corridors. The report estimates that such a scenario would result in $1.4 billion in annual costs from structural damage, business and property losses, and related factors.

Mansfield herself is no stranger to high water. She grew up in New Orleans and experienced the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It showed her that climate change is real, she said, adding, “It can happen to the place where you live, your home and your neighborhood.”

On January 3, a winter cyclone dramatically deepened over the Atlantic in a process that meteorologists call bombogenesis. The next day, it dumped more than 13 inches of snow in Boston during a full moon, with winds in excess of 60 miles per hour, setting a new record high tide. Two months later, on March 2, another nor’easter brought winds and waves that created the third-highest tide ever. (Two more nor’easters followed in quick succession, and yet another is in the forecast at the time of this writing.)

But it wasn’t just the storms that flooded Boston streets. The water also came up from below: backflow from storm drains. Some drains have tide gates, but “there are many privately owned storm drains that allow the water into the neighborhood,” said Richard McGuinness, deputy director of climate change and environmental planning for the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

It’s not that the city hasn’t been aware of the issues confronting it. Boston published its first climate action plan in 2007 and updated it in 2011 and 2014. A 2013 report by the Boston Harbor Association outlined the risks of rising seas, increasing precipitation, and stormwater flooding. The U.S. Department of Energy cited Boston as a “climate action champion community” in 2014. Many regard the city as ahead of most on recognizing and planning for the risks of climate change.

But planning is one thing; action is another.

“Although we’ve spent a lot of time planning and analyzing these impacts, we’re really at a point where we need to move more quickly into implementation and into action,” said Deanna Moran, director of environmental planning at the Conservation Law Foundation.

The next step for Climate Ready Boston is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood assessment. It started with East Boston, a community of 40,500 people, a third of whom are low income. Already subject to flooding, parts of this neighborhood could see five feet of water with sea-level rise. The climate initiative recommended a $100,000, seven-foot-high moveable seawall across the Greenway, under Sumner Street, as a counter-measure. The city is funding that, along with a project of $2 million to $3 million to raise Main Street in Charlestown, through existing department budgets. Mansfield called these “smaller things that we can do that have a big impact.”

East Boston is also home to one of Boston’s four major port areas. Boston Harbor is a vital part of the economy for both the city and the larger region. It generates $4.6 billion in economic value and sustains some 50,000 jobs. And it’s an area of risk largely overlooked in the city’s planning. The harbor includes a major container port, a 10,000-vehicle automobile processing facility, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, large petroleum and fuel storage tanks, and a road salt depot.

It wasn’t hard for four undergraduate students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to find the weak spots at some of these facilities.

Conley Terminal in South Boston, which has seen high growth in shipping volume in recent years. (Dan Zukowski)

Their study, completed last year, looked at 18 of 60 randomly-sampled industrial sites, finding 88 percent vulnerable to a five-foot sea-level rise. Just six had coastal protection structures, and, touring the harbor by water taxi, the students found the high-water mark on at least two of these to be less than five feet from the top. They also identified nine toxic materials used at port facilities, including ammonia, formaldehyde, liquid nitrogen, coal, petroleum products, and LNG.

“There’s been limited planning and thinking about the vulnerability and the hazards associated with port industries,” said Seth Tuler, who was the academic adviser on the project. He also expressed concern regarding “how little information is available about the emergency planning.”

Boston Harbor Now, a nonprofit advocating for the waterfront, sponsored the vulnerability study. “We don’t know what the private companies have put in place, and they’re understandably reluctant to share that, yet the impacts are huge,” said Kathy Abbott, the nonprofit’s president.

A recent post-mortem on the two big storms, organized by Mayor Walsh, identified additional risks: street flooding impeding emergency response vehicles; storm damage exposing toxic-waste sites; and the vulnerability of older buildings to flooding. McGuinness said there is a need to focus more on retrofitting these structures. Both zoning regulations and building codes will have to be looked at and updated, a process to be completed in the next five years.

One big, expensive idea being studied is a moveable sea barrier to close off the harbor during storms. But Abbott prefers a “greener rather than grayer” approach. She envisions “a system of parklands and public spaces that can absorb water, provide access, and protect from storms.”

Those are still just ideas: It will be at least five years before bigger projects can begin, according to the citywide Climate Ready Boston report. And that will be dependent on funding and political will.

Boston’s population grew from 618,000 in 2010 to 673,000 in 2016, and is expected to reach as high as 724,000 by 2030. While the city grows, the sea is retaking land. Meanwhile, construction continues unabated in low-lying, flood-prone areas.

Despite being an affluent city that has planned for the risks ahead, Boston is under pressure to shift into action mode. Deanna Moran believes the city must: “This is the time, we are at the moment, and we have the urgency.”

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