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Sea level rise isn't the first worry on the mind of Dolores Rivas — more like the sixth or seventh. But living in a housing development near the water in East Boston, the specter of flooded city streets is never too far off.
"My first priority is financial, because if somebody is not financially prepared, you can't do anything," she said in Spanish, standing a block away from the water. "In the case of a disaster I would need a lot of help. Help moving. I wouldn't be prepared."
Of the city's 23 neighborhoods, East Boston is considered among the most vulnerable to coastal flooding. The city estimates that in 50 years, nearly half of East Boston's territory will be at risk during a major storm.
Now officials want to build a series of defenses along a three-mile stretch of the East Boston coast. The goal is to prevent the neighborhood from losing ground to the ocean, and also to open up access to the water with parks and walkways.
The effort to defend East Boston comes as the neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying. But it's still one of the most diverse parts of the city. Half the residents are Hispanic, and nearly as many have limited English skills.
City officials say they want to reach people like Rivas in their effort to defend East Boston from sea level rise. But even with the citywide Climate Ready Boston plan in full swing, Rivas hasn't heard a word.
"There has to be more efforts to educate people about [the climate risk]," she said. "We live here near the water."
'What Are Our Chances Of Survival?'
In some ways, Eastie is to Boston what the Lower Ninth Ward is to New Orleans. It's surrounded by water on three sides, and geologically it's a cluster of five islands that were connected with landfill during industrial times. In the case of a flood, the water would flow more or less between the islands.
To get downtown from East Boston by land, you have to use a bridge or a tunnel. That makes residents like Sandra Alemán-Nijjar feel vulnerable.
"Living here and going through the tunnel every day," she said, "I do think about it every single day: What would happen to us if the tunnel broke, or if we just had this massive flood? How would we survive? What are our chances of survival?"
A bad traffic experience has given Alemán-Nijjar a glimpse of how frightening it can be to be isolated in East Boston.
"My dad got really sick and we had to rush him in an ambulance," she said. "We got stuck at the entrance of the tunnel. And the paramedics were [really apologetic]. But ... a massive tragedy? Oh, gosh. It would be a horrible nightmare."
The city is prioritizing East Boston in its Climate Ready Boston plan, a broad initiative to prepare the whole city for the effects of climate change.
Nasser Brahim, a climate change planner with the engineering firm Kleinfelder, says he thinks the threat of sea level rise is one that is solvable by engineering.
Kleinfelder was hired by the city to map out the three-mile defense of the East Boston waterfront. The resulting proposal is a system of raised berms and parks that would build up the coastline enough to contain a high tide during a major storm.
The area is sprouting with glamorous housing developments, with more under construction and even more in the pipeline. Brahim says they're being built to be resilient against flooding, and the buildings themselves serve as flood barriers.
But the buildings are just one element of a larger flood defense system.
"We know what the cost of not doing something is," Brahim said. "The Climate Ready Boston report that the city put out ... outlines the billions [of dollars] that are at risk. So I think when you counterpoint [risk against reward], we're going to see that it's a very positive investment."
The city estimates that flooding in East Boston could cost tens of millions in property damage and lost productivity. But flooding could also threaten the masses of people who live in the flood plain. The Climate Ready report suggests that close to 300 East Boston residents are already affected by regular flooding. And later in the century, a major storm could threaten nearly half the neighborhood's 40,000-plus residents.
People in Boston's climate preparedness business point to hurricanes like Sandy and Katrina, which they say prompted New York City and New Orleans to plan coastal defenses. Boston, they say, is smart enough to begin planning before disaster strikes.
But coastal defenses are only one side of the flood infrastructure equation. City planners want to open up the waterfront for recreation, with flood barriers that double as public amenities like harbor walks and amphitheaters.
In July residents got to weigh in on the question of how flood berms should be put to recreational use. The consensus was against so-called "gray infrastructure" (like large oblique concrete walls), and in favor of "green infrastructure" (like paths meandering through man-made wetlands).
The plan to build a coastal protection system in East Boston is early in the design phase. As it stands now, about two dozen structures would go up along the waterfront, including berms, elevated parks and temporary flood barriers. The system could be built in one big investment, or one piece at a time, depending on the most pressing flood risk.
The city wouldn't release estimates on how much it could cost. But according to Paul Kirshen, academic director of the Sustainable Solutions Lab at UMass Boston, it could cost half a billion dollars to protect the entire neighborhood, not just the three-mile stretch being studied by the city. But Kirshen — who with his colleagues at UMass began looking at the defense of East Boston a decade ago — says the return on investment would be more than 10 to 1.
Part Of A Broader Plan
The East Boston plan is just one element of a broad effort to protect the city from flooding. Other neighborhoods that could see coastal defense systems include Charlestown and the Seaport. On an even greater scale, researchers at UMass are studying the feasibility of a barrier to defend the entirety of Boston Harbor, stretching in one scenario from Hull to Winthrop.
And the defense of the harbor is just one element in a broader defense of the city.
"No. 1, keep as much water out as you can: Put up dams, put up berms, put up whatever you can," said Austin Blackmon, the city's chief of environment, energy and open space.
Blackmon says Boston is embracing a four-part framework laid out in the Netherlands:
- Keep water out with flood infrastructure.
- When that fails, channel the flooding to a controlled area.
- When that fails, evacuate the population.
- Return to normalcy as quickly as possible.
"Right now Boston's very, very good at No. 3 and No. 4," Blackmon said. "We've got a phenomenal Office of Emergency Management that has evacuation plans. What Climate Ready Boston is doing is helping us understand where we can make targeted investments to really improve 1 and 2: How can we block water, how can channel water?"
Fortunate for city officials like Blackmon, they have an open line of communication with the Dutch government, which has been coexisting with the tides for centuries.
Note: An earlier version of this post included an outdated draft design of the Climate Ready East Boston project. We've updated with the most up to date draft.
This segment aired on August 2, 2017.