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RENÉE LOTH

Boston prepares for future superstorms

EARLIER THIS month Mayor Thomas Menino announced a new initiative to prepare Boston for a 2-foot rise in the sea. He didn’t waste his breath debating climate change or the causes of global warming. With the devastation of Hurricane Sandy still visible along much of the East Coast, he didn’t need to. The mayor’s approach was characteristically pragmatic: Climate change is here; the floods are coming — let’s get ready. “We can’t predict the next superstorm,” he said. “But we can prepare for it.”

Few people realize how close Boston came to disaster during the hurricane in October — or even during the blizzard earlier this month. If Sandy’s storm surge had hit Boston at high tide, just a few hours earlier than it did, newly developed flood maps show that more than 6 percent of Boston would have been under water. The flood area includes the Charlestown Navy Yard, Gillette headquarters in South Boston, the Aquarium MBTA station, and 65 percent of the Fort Point channel district.

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Moreover, according to a new report from The Boston Harbor Association, Boston is on track to experience a sea-level rise of 1 to 2 feet by 2050. That means severe flooding — overtopping the Charles River dam — could occur on an annual basis. By the end of the century, with the harbor’s predicted sea level 5 feet above the current average, the city would experience what we now consider a 100-year coastal flood twice a day, every day.

Some environmental activists have resisted steps to “adapt” to climate change, believing it’s a distraction from the fight to reduce carbon emissions and reverse global warming. But Boston and other coastal cities are wise to do both. “Sandy was a clarion call,” said Brian Swett, Menino’s new chief of environment and energy.

The city is using a number of tools to reduce its watery vulnerability: adding climate-preparedness guidelines to the BRA’s development review process; convening a working group of developers to spread the word about readiness; conducting an inventory of existing buildings in flood-prone areas to goad owners into improving their emergency response plans. Swett says these steps will be in place within six months.

But the city may have trouble keeping ahead of the storm. Millions of square feet of development are planned or already approved for the South Boston waterfront. The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center is seeking a major expansion. Hundreds of residential buildings are in the pipeline for the East Boston piers. All of these are on low-lying coastal properties vulnerable to sea-level rise. All of them should be made to incorporate climate-adaptation designs before a shovel goes in the ground.

It isn’t like developers don’t know what needs to be done. The new Spaulding Rehab hospital in Charlestown, opening in April, was designed to endure a 2.5-foot sea level rise. All of its mechanical equipment is on the top floors. The windows open manually in case of electrical failure. Retaining walls were constructed to act as a natural reef.

But not all property-owners are this progressive. And Menino walks a fine line between encouraging development and ensuring that new buildings are retrofitted for our wet new world. “We’re seeing it more from an opportunity standpoint,” said Swett. “We have an opportunity to do it right.”

For now, the bully pulpit may be the city’s best leverage. But if Menino is serious about making Boston “the most sustainable city in America,” city agencies will need to do more. Developers should design any new project to be climate-resilient over the life of the building, not just however long they own the property. That could easily be through the end of the century, when a storm surge would flood 30 percent of the city. It will take more than sandbags to hold back that tide.

Developers also need to consider the costs of inaction. At Menino’s announcement, Bryan Koop, a senior vice president at Boston Properties, described the scene in lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy as one of his business colleagues watched water crashing through plate glass windows and into his lobby. Then the power went out. Workers scrambled for their lives. The building may be a total loss.

It can happen here.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
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