How Ready Is Boston For A Major Hurricane?

The view from East Boston as the sun rises over the Boston skyline on June 7, 2016. (Photo by Lauren Owens/GroundTruth)

New England felt the lingering effects of Hurricane Nate with rainfall on earlier this month, but the Northeast largely has been spared from this year’s brutal Atlantic hurricane season, which has brought 15 named storms so far – including five Category 3 or higher hurricanes – and the most storm activity since 2005.

But that’s not to say that New England shouldn’t be prepared. The last major hurricane to hit our coast was Hurricane Bob, a Category 2 storm that made landfall in 1991. Before that, deadly and destructive Category 3 hurricanes hit in 1938 and in 1954.

“We’re due,” says Christopher Neill, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Research Center.

It’s hard to imagine Massachusetts being hit with the equivalent of Hurricane Harvey, the Category 4 storm that brought devastating flooding to Houston. Or Hurricane Maria, the Category 5 storm that has caused a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. But scientists say it has happened before and will happen again.

Scientists have been linking warmer sea temperatures and extreme weather for years now, and this year is tracking to be the second-hottest year on record – behind only 2016. Climate change is intensifying hurricanes, making them more frequent and more damaging, according to the Woods Hole Research Center.

The national climate assessment puts New England at particular risk.

“New England is the region of the country that has seen and will see the most extreme precipitation,” Neill said.

Similar to the Gulf Coast, we also have flat land and a lot of eastern New England is low-lying, he added. As sea levels rise, the risk for coastal flooding rises, too. In a bad coastal storm with heavy rainfall, the region would have to battle “water coming from both sides.”

Boston has emergency preparedness plans in place for such events and has made strides in recent years to improve its resiliency to climate change.

“Boston is very prepared for the natural disasters that we anticipate that we will get,” said Austin Blackmon, chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space for Boston.

There are different evacuation plans for hurricanes of different strengths — including up to a Category 5 — but Blackmon says he doesn’t anticipate a storm of the magnitude of Harvey or Maria anytime soon.

Houston wasn’t expecting it either. Just six months before Hurricane Harvey, the city’s public safety and homeland security director said, “Only a small portion of the city of Houston is at risk for major storm surge.” While the destructiveness of Harvey was primarily caused by the storm’s record-breaking rainfall, its storm surge compounded problems, flooding hundreds of thousands of homes and causing at least 82 deaths.

Since WGBH News and The GroundTruth Project first reported on the city’s evacuation plans last year, Boston has made steady improvements to its emergency preparations using funding from the Department of Homeland Security, according to Rene Fielding, director of Boston’s Office of Emergency Management.

The evacuation routes are now better coordinated with other towns, and there are more streets tied to it. Fielding says the office is preparing to incorporate modeling in the plan so that, for example, they know how long it would take to evacuate residents at a particular time of day.

In the coming months, she said, she’ll be looking at the lessons learned from her counterparts in Texas and Florida. How did public officials communicate with residents, for example, and how did the cities manage mega-shelters and the inflow of volunteers?

“We always operate in a world of ‘it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when,’” Fielding said. “We have a very solid framework to respond to any disaster. … We’re ready, and I think it’s a joint effort,” she said. It’s an effort that requires residents to be prepared, too: to sign up for alert notifications from the city, develop a family plan and have emergency supplies on hand.

Through the Climate Ready Boston initiative, the city is also working to bolster places that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. While the plans are still conceptual at this point, Blackmon said efforts are underway to create “shovel-ready projects” that the city can implement – for instance, in the face of a major storm, erecting a temporary flood barrier in East Boston.

Boston’s preparations are good steps, Neill said, but they won’t protect the rest of the state or region. In Massachusetts, especially on the South Shore and Cape Cod, many homes are located in low-lying coastal areas where shorelines are eroding and sea levels are projected to rise up to seven feet by the end of the century. There are much-needed changes to make to the existing and new infrastructure, Neill said. But his research focuses on managing the natural landscapes, like what to do with the extra water if a storm hits with high surges and heavy precipitation. He sees opportunity to restore some of the land to wetlands, for instance, which can act as an “overflow valve for high water.”

To Neill, who has worked closely with towns in and around Cape Cod and Buzzards Bay, the real challenges are managing this at the hyper-local level, where communities don’t have the resources that a city like Boston has.

If you’re the town manager, your job is to protect your town, he said. “You have to figure out what happens when the beach road washes out in your town, what happens when the salt water comes up into your wastewater holding ponds. What do you do?”


A version of this story appeared in WGBH News on October 13, 2017