Preparing Boston for the big one

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February 5, 2013, 6:05 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - New York City's subways flooded. Its stock exchange sandbagged. Shopping displays smashed by wind and rain. Tourist hotspots deluged.

It's something no one in Boston -- or anywhere else -- wants to imagine befalling their city, but now, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and environmental experts are saying: Plan for it.

"We can't predict the next superstorm, but we can prepare for it," Menino said at a New England Aquarium event unveiling a new study by The Boston Harbor Association, "Preparing for the Rising Tide."

It found that had Sandy's surge hit just 5 1/2 hours earlier than it did, at high tide, it could have sent floodwaters across vast areas of the harborfront and East Boston, potentially extending through Quincy Market to Boston City Hall.

Menino is ordering the Boston Redevelopment Authority to catalogue everything -- buildings, low-lying subway entrances like the MBTA Aquarium and South Station entrances -- that could need protection and how to add flood-mitigation to the city's planning and building code. His chief of energy and environmental affairs, Brian Swett, said, "There are things that we can do today on the building and neighborhood scale that don't involve hundreds of millions of dollars or decades of permitting."

Vivien Li, executive director of the harbor association, said the study also shows if sea-level-rise forecasts for 2050 and 2100 come true, fully 30 percent of the land area of Boston is at risk of flooding during serious storms.

"Inland areas such as the Back Bay and Beacon Hill are even affected, because the water will go over the Charles River Dam, so it's not any longer just areas along the coast," Li said. "It's really a wakeup call for property owners."

One Boston institution widely cited as a property owner that "gets it" is Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. It's set to open its new hospital in late April in Charlestown, on the Navy Yard, right on the water. Anticipating coastal flooding, Spaulding officials had the new hospital's heating, cooling, and electrical equipment and an emergency generator put on the roof, nine floors up from ground level. Hospital CEO said they also made sure all 132 rooms have windows that can open -- if the power and cooling units ever fail -- and built the first floor as high above ground as possible, with plantings and retaining walls that would work like "a protective reef" in a flood.

Menino's message to all property owners and managers: "It happened in New York a few months ago. It happened in New Jersey. It can happen here. We see this climate change taking over our world. We want to be prepared for it."

With videographer Kevin Krisak.

Tags: Boston, Peter Howe, Tom Menino, flooding, environment, Superstorm Sandy, rising sea levels Boston, Vivien Li
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