Severe storm effects are the new norm

Rising sea levels and urban flooding will wreak havoc without immediate fixes

ONLY TWO MONTHS after surging tides and high winds flooded MBTA stations, knocked out power and sent three feet of water into the streets of Boston, it’s all happening again. The governor and the mayor call press conferences to lay out preparations, urge caution and call up the National Guard. Schools close. Businesses get out the sand bags.

This, thanks to climate change, is no longer an aberration, a recognition that both the governor and the mayor have made clear. In fact, it’s what we can expect on a near-regular basis in the future. City officials estimate that three feet of sea level rise in Boston could cause similar levels of flooding every month.

“What we will see is definitely a preview of what could be the new normal because of climate change,” Mayor Marty Walsh said as he talked about storm readiness.

Warming ocean waters, increasing strength and duration of storms, and rising sea levels will wreak havoc on our urban landscape – new development, existing structures, critical infrastructure, and transportation systems. It is essential that we tackle these challenges comprehensively and at a systems scale if we are going to protect our residents, our homes, and our economy.

Boston and Massachusetts have made the right start. The state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program awards grants to communities for technical support, climate change data and other tools to improve resiliency. And Walsh has created Climate Ready Boston, an ongoing initiative to help the city prepare for days like this.

But as January 4 and this weekend make clear, it is time for recommendations to become requirements. The time has come for new standards and regulations rather than voluntary measures and guidance.

And it is not just the responsibility of the city or the state to address these issues – we need leadership from the private sector including businesses and developers. They have an opportunity to get out in front of these risks instead of waiting for codes and regulations to catch up to current science.

There are many tools available to address these issues but the best solutions are ones that leverage our natural systems. Marshland, rain gardens, open space, and setbacks are all relatively simple measures that can be incorporated into new developments to safeguard them from climate impacts.

We can look across new development in Boston to determine what is being done right – and what is being done wrong. In some places, like Clippership Wharf in East Boston, developers are taking the lead on using innovative green infrastructure solutions such as living shorelines to buffer flood impacts. But in other places, the adaptive capacity of buildings is more limited – they are too close to the shoreline, or are too poorly planned to deal with flooding. Already one gleaming new tower in the Seaport routinely gets a good first floor soaking during even average high tides, let alone days like Friday.

An even bigger challenge than new development will be addressing the vulnerability of existing structures. In places like the North End and the Downtown, finding ways to adapt existing structures will be crucial and costly. The city should consider ways to leverage new development to fund these needed improvements, for example, by requiring developers to pay into a fund for district-wide resilience measures.

Some cities and developers are beginning to see the writing on the wall as financial and legal risks become increasingly clear in the face of more frequent and intense storm and flood events. Insurers and investors are already taking climate risks into consideration. Communities that don’t do likewise are going to find themselves struggling to manage soaring costs, potentially lost properties and safety risks.

Meet the Author
Moody’s Investor Services Inc. has already warned cities and states that the perils of climate change could lead to costly credit downgrades. Investors see what is happening outside their windows – and what they see could lead them to stay away from putting money into towers built without regard for rising seas.

The time for action is now. Boston, communities along the coast and all of Massachusetts must build on the solid planning already begun and make preparing for climate change a requirement, not just a recommendation.

Deanna Moran is Director of Environmental Planning for the Conservation Law Foundation. She is responsible for identifying and implementing cutting-edge solutions to a variety of environmental problems, oversees climate resiliency activities for Southern New England, and leads CLF’s climate preparedness and public access initiative for Boston Harbor.