Preparing for Storm Surge

Last week’s storm surge, as dramatic as it was on Plum Island, was modest compared to the surges we need to start planning for.

Between sea level rise and greater storm intensity, we are likely to see considerably higher storm surges over the coming decades. Additionally, with higher rainfall, river flooding will become more intense.

Sea walls in the inner harbor normally maintain the Charles and Mystic rivers at levels a few feet below high tide levels. If storm surges overtop these sea walls at the same time that the rivers are flooding, then the Back Bay, the Fenway and other low-lying areas in the communities along the rivers face the possibility of inundation.

Last Tuesday, I spoke on two long-planned panels devoted to the question of how to prepare for higher storm surges — one at Suffolk University and the other under the auspices of the Environmental Business Council of New England, an organization of environmental and energy company businesses. My role on both panels was to discuss legislation that I have filed to better focus the planning process for higher storm surges.

My legislation would require the secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, working with an advisory panel, to define some scenarios and assign risk levels to them over different time periods — through 2030, 2050 and 2100. The legislation would require state agencies like the MBTA to then estimate the costs of protecting their critical assets in these scenarios.

With that information, public discussion could then move to the question of which assets to protect. We’ll face choices of whether (a) to try to protect assets from flooding by enhancing barriers; (b) to make the assets resilient to flooding — capable of taking a flood and then drying out without much downtime; (c) to leave the assets exposed and take the risks of losing them.

The legislation would not mandate any particular planning response by municipalities, but the new official estimates of risk would prompt many municipalities that are at risk to respond. The City of Boston and the City of Cambridge are both well along in their thinking on these issues. My expectation is that Secretary of EEA would work closely with them through the advisory group contemplated in the legislation.

The City of Boston and the executive branch of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were both well represented on last week’s panels, as were researchers and advocates. One of the most interesting presentations came from a broker in the reinsurance industry, which has a unique perspective on the increasing rates of storm losses.

In Massachusetts, we face the risk of billions of dollars in storm losses from climate change. I’m hopeful that with the long range view that the leaders of our institutions have, we can overcome inertia and take prudent steps to manage our exposure.

Not that we can avoid the gravest potential consequences in the long run, and not that we are well prepared for the changes that are already evident. But I’m struck by the huge advantages developed countries have in preparing for climate change. In developing countries that lack the social and financial capital to respond, the likely consequence of climate change will be the mass relocation of populations. That’s the scenario that has U.S. military planners most worried — security unravels quickly when large masses of people are on the move.

All the more reason to be focused on mitigating climate change as well as adapting to it — continuing climate change now appears inevitable, but it’s a matter of degrees: We can make choices that affect how far and how fast climate change progresses.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.