We’ve been warned.
For more than a decade, scientists have sounded the alarm that Massachusetts is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events and climate change. The death and destruction of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey, the storms that battered Florida and Texas, could happen here. Hurricane Sandy, which caused at least 147 deaths in 2012, gave a preview of the damage a major storm hitting a densely populated Northeastern state would cause.
Safeguards — in the form of better state building codes, storm barriers to reduce flooding, and buy-back of vulnerable coastal properties — are overdue.
One reason Massachusetts has been slow to confront its vulnerabilities is that major New England hurricanes have been relatively rare in the past. Massachusetts hasn’t taken a hit since Hurricane Bob, in 1991. The last one to inflict major damage struck in 1938.
But global climate change is altering the equation. A state report said the Commonwealth should start planning for more storms from a warming Atlantic. That was in 2007.
“Current rates of sea level rise and projections for accelerated trends are all significant threats to the coastal communities of the state,” another report warned — in 2011.
A 2015 report laid out specific changes to building codes and recommended state buy-back programs of threatened properties.
Some of the recommendations of those reports have been enacted, and it’s not too late to tackle the rest. But the mentality of denial still prevails in Massachusetts: Local politicians responded to updated FEMA flood maps not by urging communities to prepare for the dangers of climate change, but by trying to poke holes in the science.
What forecasts show is that parts of Boston — a city built partially on reclaimed land — are vulnerable to storm surges and rising sea levels. East Boston, the area around the Seaport, and parts of Dorchester are especially at risk. Many other Massachusetts municipalities — ranging from Revere to Scituate — have high-risk pockets.
Builders are starting to incorporate rising seas and stronger storm surges into their plans, moving key mechanical components to higher floors.
Artificial barriers can also play a role. Engineers are studying whether it would be feasible to build a barrier wall to protect some or all of Boston Harbor. Boston has some natural protection in the form of the Harbor islands, but a barrier could moderate storm surges. While it may seem far-fetched, the idea deserves serious study.
Where barriers aren’t practical, the state should also be moving more aggressively to buy properties that are vulnerable to inundation. For several years, the state Senate has tried to pass legislation authorizing coastal buy-backs that has run aground in the House. A Senate bill this session would give the state authority to buy structures that have been “substantially and repeatedly damaged by severe weather.” Moving residents out of harm’s way reduces the personal risk to them, and the economic toll of future storms.
Rising seas mean homeowners, businesses, and municipalities face tough decisions. And those decisions will only get tougher the longer they’re put off.