Blog Post | Climate Preparedness | 09.27.17

Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria … what’s going on? Is Boston prepared?

Bud Ris, Co-chair, GRC Climate Preparedness Working Group

Despite what seems like an endless stream of “record” storms over the last several weeks, scientists are still debating whether the intensity and/or frequency of hurricanes has actually increased and, if so, whether any of that is the result of climate change. The physics are pretty clear – the warming of waters in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico create conditions that can fuel the intensity of hurricanes. But isolating the effect of that phenomenon versus natural variations is hugely complex.

Looking to the future, however, there does seem to be growing consensus that the intensity of hurricanes tracking towards the Northeast and Boston will increase. Such was the conclusion of the Boston Research Advisory Group convened by the City of Boston and the Green Ribbon Commission in 2016.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, Boston will face a growing challenge as a result of rising sea levels.  Even if hurricane and Nor’easter storm patterns don’t change in the decades ahead, the impacts of even “regular” storms will be greatly exacerbated by the higher water levels along Boston’s waterfront – exposing more and more parts of the city to flooding over time.

That begs an important question: with all the attention on long term resilience planning through Climate Ready Boston (CRB) and other programs,  is Boston now better prepared if a major storm hits us next month, or next year?

I think the answer is “yes.” Because of all of the planning work that has been done over the last couple of years, City officials now know much more about the populations, resources, and places in Boston that are most vulnerable to coastal flooding. For example, CRB studies show that there are particular flood “pathways” in parts of East Boston, Charlestown, and the Seaport that will expose these areas to more flooding than other parts of the city. And the analysis tell us that critical infrastructure in some areas is more vulnerable than others – such as the Silver and Blue line T stations along the waterfront, and some of the Big Dig’s ramps and vents.

Mayor Walsh has recently ordered a review of the City’s emergency management plan. In so doing, he would be wise to ensure that key results of analyses done for the CRB project, MassDOT, Massport, and others are fully integrated with any updates to the plan – so that preparedness efforts in advance of a major storm can focus resources and attention where they will be needed most.

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