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On Revere's Pearl Avenue, Residents Grapple With The Rising Tide Of Climate Change06:49
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Waves crash over the seawall on Winthrop Parkway in Revere during a high tide on Dec. 17, 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Waves crash over the seawall on Winthrop Parkway in Revere during a high tide on Dec. 17, 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In the Beachmont neighborhood of Revere, there’s a street called Pearl Avenue. It’s a wide quiet street with views of the Atlantic Ocean, Belle Isle Marsh and the Boston skyline — the sort of place that’s great to raise a family, residents say. And in fact, many of its residents are part of one big, extended family and have lived there for decades.

“I absolutely love this street. My whole family is on here,” says 22-year-old Samantha Woodman. She grew up in a small white house where you could see the ocean from the kitchen window.

“We always used to just go over each other's houses at night and have family game night,” she adds, pointing out where her aunt, who had kids the same age as Woodman and her younger sister, lived. "We would play baseball on the street — it was just a very nice neighborhood to grow up in.”

But growing up on Pearl Avenue also meant that flooding was part of life. The low-lying street borders a tidal marsh to the south and ends a few hundred feet from the ocean.

Woodman says it was normal for peoples’ lawns to disappear under several inches of water during storms or when the tides were exceptionally high. She recalls a storm about a decade ago where waves carried several bins of toys from her neighbor’s backyard into the marsh.

“They had to go fetch their barrels and the toys from the marsh,” she says with a little laugh. “But again, normal. That was pretty normal.”

Samantha Woodman stands on Pearl Avenue near her childhood home. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Samantha Woodman stands on Pearl Avenue near her childhood home. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Pearl Avenue floods more regularly than many of the surrounding streets because of geography. At one end, the street makes a “T” with Winthrop Parkway, which runs north to south along the ocean. The spot where the two streets intersect is like the bottom of a bowl; the parkway slopes up on both sides, and so does Pearl Avenue.

There’s a seawall separating Winthrop Parkway from the beach, although there’s not much of a beach. At high tide on a normal sunny day, the waves lap at the concrete wall and ocean spray comes over the top. During big storms, it’s typical to see 60-foot waves crash over the seawall, and the city of Revere usually closes the Parkway so cars don’t get stuck.

Pearl Ave makes a "T" with Winthrop Parkway, which runs along the coastline. (Google Earth)
Pearl Ave makes a "T" with Winthrop Parkway, which runs along the coastline. (Google Earth)

Because of this geography, whenever water crests the seawall, it flows downhill and pools on Pearl Avenue — if it’s raining, the water will get even higher.

To make matters worse, the marshland to the south of the street is also affected by tides and storm surge. And because this whole area — like much of Revere and Boston — was built on urban fill, water seeps up from the ground below.

As one city official put it, the residents of Pearl Avenue get “flanked” from three sides: the ocean, the marsh, and the below-ground water table.

At high tide, water from Belle Isle Marsh comes right up to the backyards of homes on Pearl Avenue. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
At high tide, water from Belle Isle Marsh comes right up to the backyards of homes on Pearl Avenue. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Still, according to residents, the flooding is fairly predictable. And if you watch the weather and consult tide charts, you’ll know when to take your lawn mower and winter clothes out of your basement or move your car to higher ground.

But in early January 2018, the unpredictable happened. The Boston area was slammed by a big nor’easter. The storm brought ferocious winds, dumped more than a foot of snow and — because it coincided with an exceptionally high tide — caused severe flooding along the coast.

Residents on Pearl Avenue say they knew a storm was coming, but weather forecasts only predicted some snow and moderate flooding.

Instead, they got absolutely pummelled.

Water crashes along the seawall on Winthrop Parkway during a recent high tide. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Water crashes along the seawall on Winthrop Parkway during a recent high tide. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“2018 was a time I want to forget; a time most of us want to forget,” says Dawn Woodman, Samantha’s mother.

The Woodman’s had lost heat in their house a few days before the storm and were staying with friends in another part of town. They left their car parked in front of their house on Pearl Avenue.

The house sat about six lots in from the ocean, on a part of the street that stayed relatively dry, they say. And given the weather forecast, Dawn Woodman says she figured the car would be fine.

But as high tide approached on Jan. 4, things escalated quickly. Winthrop Parkway was underwater and huge waves were cresting a concrete traffic barrier in the middle of the road — something many residents say they had never seen happen before. Meanwhile, the water in the marsh was rising quickly too.

“My cousin Sandy was sending me videos and pictures, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’” says Woodman. “And I [wasn’t] even there to do anything.”

That evening, as temperatures dipped into the single digits, the water turned into a slushy, frozen mess. When the Woodmans came back the next day, their car — like at least 20 other cars on the street — was stuck in the ice and totaled. The family’s only means of transportation was gone.

“It was a huge deal, very difficult,” says Dawn Woodman. “We're not wealthy. We scrape by. I'm a single mom with two kids. It was hard. It was really — it was heartbreaking.”

Insurance covered some of the cost of a new car, but Woodman says she had to dip deep into her savings.

“I cried. I was devastated,” she says. “I had just got that car used the year before. It wasn't even that old.”

A few months ago, the Woodmans moved to another part of Revere after their landlord — Dawn’s 80-year-old uncle — decided he could no longer manage the property on Pearl Avenue. The family still comes back to visit often, and on a recent afternoon, while sitting on the stoop of her former home, a few feet away from where the car was wrecked, Woodman says she feels lucky that the family didn’t lose more in 2018.

She gestures to a house nearby. “#30 was basically destroyed. And I know #40 also had significant damage," she says. "One of the neighbors opened her dryer and washer and seawater came out.”

Christine LaVigueur leans on the fence at the end of her yard overlooking Belle Isle Marsh. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Christine LaVigueur leans on the fence at the end of her yard overlooking Belle Isle Marsh. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Across the street, things got really bad for Christine LaVigueur and her husband. Their house abuts the marsh, which had basically merged with the choppy ocean water during the storm.

“We actually evacuated,” she says. Her husband went down to the basement at one point to check on the flooding and found that the water was up to the middle of his chest.

“The washer and dryer was sparking. We had to shut the electrical panel off. We called the fire department and they came and got us,” she says.

The family lost three cars, their washer and dryer, their furnace and their hot water heater. LaVigueur says that flood insurance covered some of the cost, but she had to pay for a lot of repairs out of her own pocket.

“It was thousands. It was definitely thousands. It wasn't over ten thousand, but darn close.”

A few weeks later, they were hit by another big storm. Then another in March.

“With all the climate changes, the water seems to be getting higher and higher each year. So it's more of a challenge,” LaVigueur says. “When I first came here, it wasn't that bad, you know?”

So why does she stay? Why does anyone stay?

Well, her husband grew up on this street, and she's lived her for 45 years. She knows all her neighbors. She can hear the ocean at night. And her backyard overlooks Belle Isle Marsh.

Yes, 2018 was really bad, she says. But in general, the benefits of living here outweigh the risks.

Down the street, Dawn Woodman’s cousin, Sandra Castellarin, says she’s made a similar calculation. A few years ago, she acquired an empty lot from her father — who lives next door — and built a new house a few hundred feet from the ocean.

“I grew up here, so I knew what to expect,” she says. “That’s also why I made sure that when I built this house, it could withstand the floods.

Samantha's aunt, Sandra Castellarin, standing across the street from her house on Pearl Avenue. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Samantha's aunt, Sandra Castellarin, standing across the street from her house on Pearl Avenue. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Castellarin’s house doesn’t have a traditional basement, but rather a 5-foot crawl space that’s designed to flood. Less than a year after moving in, the 2018 storm hit. The system worked as planned and the crawl space filled with about a foot and a half of water. But the water caused some damage anyway.

The floor of the crawl space was covered with seaweed, which grew mold and needed professional cleaning. She also lost all her Christmas decorations, lawn furniture and anything else she had stored below the house. Since then, she’s coated the crawl space with a waterproof, mold-resistant paint and put all of her belongings up on platforms.

Still, she says she knows some people will hear her story and say she’s irresponsible — that everyone on the street is irresponsible for staying.

“I mean, I understand,” she says. “And I myself think, ‘Was it irresponsible?’ But it's not going to be tomorrow that none of us can live here anymore.”

Waves crash over the Winthrop Parkway seawall during a storm in March 2018. (Courtesy of Sandra Castellarin)
Waves crash over the Winthrop Parkway seawall during a storm in March 2018. (Courtesy of Sandra Castellarin)

Castellarin acknowledges that climate change is making sea levels rise and causing more frequent and severe storms. And she knows that people across the world are talking about what areas to protect and what areas to abandon.

But she, like many other people on the street, says Pearl Avenue is worth protecting. And she wonders whether the city or state could do more to help the neighborhood.

According to city officials, there isn’t much to be done.

Pearl Avenue “is actually one of the lowest elevations we have in the city,” says Don Ciaramella, Chief of Infrastructure and Engineering at the Revere Department of Public Works. Even if they fortified the neighborhood with 10-foot seawalls, the water would still come up from below ground.

“This whole area was basically a bunch of islands that were connected by marshland," he adds. And a couple hundred years ago, people began filling it it so they could build homes here.

These photos show the construction of Winthrop Parkway in the early 20th century, and what the area looks like today. Much of the parkway was built in a tidal zone. (Courtesy City of Revere)
These photos show the construction of Winthrop Parkway in the early 20th century, and what the area looks like today. Much of the parkway was built in a tidal zone. (Courtesy City of Revere)

“The problem is, is people don't want to come to the realization that where they live is no longer habitable or will no longer be habitable,” he says. “I think eventually Mother Nature is going to win this battle.”

For many residents of Pearl Avenue, that future — though inevitable — still seems far off.

“In 40 years, you may see all these houses gone. And who's to say that in 40 years, this sidewalk here won't be the edge of the marsh,” Dawn Woodman says. “But there's so much to this neighborhood. Look around — it's not overbuilt. It's just a great neighborhood with so many positive things. It's a gem in Beachmont.”

Looking across Belle Isle Marsh to Boston on a bright spring day.
Looking across Belle Isle Marsh to Boston on a bright spring day.

Her daughter Samantha, currently a senior at Emmanuel College in Boston, looks on and nods her head in agreement.

“I think anyone can make the argument to save areas because it's about worth to yourself. It's about how you feel about a certain place. And the people that live there tend to care more about the place and they want to keep it for as long as possible,” she says.

For Woodman, the experience of growing up on Pearl Avenue — and living through the devastating storm of 2018 — has inspired her to become a climate activist and study sustainability.

She understands that the street will be underwater in a few decades; she just hopes the neighborhood lasts long enough that she can show it to her future kids before it’s gone.

This segment aired on April 23, 2021.

Related:

Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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