Heating and electrical systems housed in the basements of older buildings is a concern amid rising sea levels.

Credit: Stephanie Leydon/WGBH News

How Ready Is Boston For Future Floods?

February 6, 2018

In neighborhoods across Boston, much of the most sought after new construction offers views of one of the city's greatest assets. But as was evident during January's so-called "bombogenesis" storm, the sea has its liabilities. Along with heavy snowfall, the storm produced what for many neighborhoods was a surprise — knee deep water that turned city streets, and office corridors into rivers.

"Within five to 10 minutes we had three feet of water outside, and then it started flooding in here," said Gina Cameron, administrative director at Boston Harbor Cruises. "Within about five minutes we had about eight inches of water from the front of our office to the back of our office." 

Cameron's office is located on a wharf in downtown Boston, feet from where the company's boats are docked outside. In the 18 years she's worked here, Cameron has seen plenty of storms. This one was different.

"I feel like this may be the new norm because it just came out of nowhere," she said. "Now my brain's working on how to prepare for the next time."

She's not alone.  

Kathy Abbott of Boston Harbor Now is among those who see the widespread flooding produced by the storm, not as a one-off, but a warning. Sea levels, she says, are rising.

"Which means these low-lying areas are vulnerable and are going to get hit again and again and again," said Abbott.  

Abbott says in Boston's fast-developing Seaport neighborhood, new buildings appeared to have weathered the storm. Many are designed to withstand powerful storm surges. They're built on raised bases, utilities are located on the roof and sloped parks near the water create a natural barrier that sends water back into the ocean.  

It was a test, but Abbott says we could be in for a lot worse. "It was a one day storm, and it only came so far," she said.

New buildings may be okay, but the city's old. There are plenty of examples of urban infrastructure failing during the flood. A video posted on Twitter, for instance, shows a dumpster floating down a Seaport street. Another Twitter video shows water pouring into the Aquarium Station MBTA stop, turning the stairs into a waterfall. Then there's the issue of old homes in flood zones.

"Your boilers, heaters, water coolers, all those things could get wiped out," said Phil Giffee, executive director of Neighborhood of Affordable Housing.

A longtime affordable housing advocate in East Boston, Giffee is urging residents and the city to make resiliency a priority. The city has issued a report with ideas for protecting this neighborhood — everything from parks that double as seawalls to installing a portable barrier during storms.

"It will take millions of dollars," said Giffee. "If we don't do it I think we're going to pay the price over the long term."

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