New England Storm Preparations Begin to Form

Hurricane Harvey Devastated Houston, So What’s Cambridge’s Flooding Plan?

Isabelle Agee-Jacobson, Contributing Writer

A little over three weeks ago, the historically disastrous storm known as Hurricane Harvey devastated much of eastern Texas and Louisiana. This unprecedented storm resulted in the deaths of 39 people, turned streets into rivers, and demolished the region in such a way that the recovery effort will last several years. Shocked by this disaster, many coastal cities around the country, including Boston and Cambridge, are examining what could happen if they were hit by a storm like Harvey.

In order to prevent such a disaster from happening here, Boston has started to examine its own risk of flooding in the case of hurricanes, as well as what it can do to lessen the damage. Mayor of Boston, Martin J. Walsh, told the Boston Herald, “We really have to have serious conversations. If we got hit with a storm like this, if Harvey hit Boston Harbor, we are wiped out as a city.”

According to the Guardian, Mayor Walsh created a report, “Climate Ready Boston,” with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Green Ribbon Commission in 2016-2017 to examine the effects of climate change on Boston and what the city can handle in terms of disasters. The report found that “without improvements, the existing stormwater system will not be capable of conveying a ten-year, 24-hour rainfall event, causing untreated stormwater runoff to pond in the streets.” The report also found that Boston’s stormwater drainage system is only equipped to handle 4.8 inches of rain in 24 hours. This means that the system can easily become overwhelmed, leading to flooding and pooling of water.

The report also looks at what Boston can do to mitigate some of the risks.  Part of Boston’s plan to avoid catastrophic flooding, according to the report, should be to create flood maps that predict the magnitude of possible floods, and what in the city will cause problems. The report also says a crucial part of Boston’s strategy is creating coastal protection infrastructure that is responsive to the community’s needs and to the environment.

The Climate Change Committee in Cambridge has also created a report, “Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment,” on this issue. Their report has key findings: dams in Cambridge will likely protect Cambridge from storm surges until 2030, the Alewife-Fresh Pond area has the most risk of flooding and this flooding will pose a risk to people, buildings, and infrastructure, and that, by 2070, this area could face a 20 percent annual probability of flooding.

The report also says that if a storm surge were to occur, the amount of water would be immense and traditional flood management techniques would be insufficient; any storm surge—though unlikely until 2070—could cause the Charles River to overflow and block drainage pipes; and finally, regional systems such as public transit and energy could be disrupted by the flooding.

In the short term, … what the local governments should do is really prepare their citizens.

— Ms. Stomberg

While the CCVA report doesn’t outline a specific plan, it instructs Cambridge on how it should proceed should the city flood. After they pilot a climate readiness program in the Fresh Pond-Alewife area and then extend it to other neighborhoods, Cambridge will create a Climate Change Preparedness and Resiliency Plan. The plan will work with members of the community to develop strategies to address the problems that the vulnerability assessment pointed out.

AP Environmental Science teacher Ms. Stomberg says, “In the short term, … what the local governments should do is really prepare their citizens. People should know about evacuation routes. Individuals should be prepared—where would they go if they did have to evacuate? What would they take with them? If the power goes out, what do you need to survive for a bunch of days? That sounds a bit dramatic but that’s the problem people are having right now.”

Fosca Bechthold ’18, a leader of the CRLS Environmental Action Club, summed up the situation, saying, “Overall, I think individual action as well as larger, communal action needs to be taken with the future in mind, otherwise we may find ourselves unprepared to be the next culprit of such a large disaster.”

This piece also appears in our September print edition.