Fidel Maltez still thinks about the pummeling Chelsea took during a “bomb cyclone” four years ago. The city’s public works commissioner remembers the precise date — Jan. 4, 2018 — and the damage dealt by a storm with power local leaders believe was magnified by climate change.
The sudden drop in atmospheric pressure brought more than a foot of snow and wind gusts over 50 miles per hour. The record-setting high tide sent flood waters rushing onto Chelsea’s major roadways, trapping many people in their homes. Maltez worked knee-deep in water putting out sandbags, and he watched as firefighters rescued stranded motorists.
Chelsea officials say the roughly 2-square-mile city across the Mystic River from Boston is being hit by more frequent — and more damaging — flooding due to rising sea levels and stronger storms caused by climate change. With a city report projecting even worse flooding in the coming decades, officials say they need more resources to protect Chelsea’s people and its future.
“What is troubling for us is that we don’t have an option to move inland. We don’t have an option to relocate residents,” Maltez said. “We’re saying that by 2070, half of our city is going to be at high flood risk.”
Maltez compares the predicted climate threat to be like “walking into the lion’s den” if Chelsea doesn’t prepare now. “We think about this every day.”
Chelsea leaders are not alone in their concerns about a shifting climate. A survey of officials from 111 Massachusetts cities and towns published in November 2021 by the UMass Northeast Center for Coastal Resilience found that virtually all respondents observed climate change impacts in their communities. Most, including in Chelsea, said their communities have conducted vulnerability and risk assessments.
Climate change is often described in sweeping global terms, but many of its effects are experienced locally. More frequent flooding that damages homes, businesses, and roads. More intense storms that cause power outages. Illnesses worsened by extreme temperatures.
“The climate conversation has become much more local than it used to be,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of GreenRoots, a Chelsea-based organization that advocates for social and environmental justice. “They’re saying, ‘we’re experiencing unbelievable heat waves, and people are dying. We are experiencing more frequent flooding and property is being damaged.’ "
Barriers stand in the way of cities and towns to address these challenges, the survey found, such as limited staffing, resources, and expertise to plan for climate impacts.
Marta Vicarelli, an assistant professor with the Department of Economics and School of Public Policy at UMass Amherst, said researchers were surprised by the breadth of the responses they received from 40 coastal and 71 inland municipalities.
“They actually poured their hearts into these answers,” Vicarelli said. “The respondents know their stuff, and they know what they need.”
Officials in 73 percent of coastal communities said they were strongly affected by severe storms and high-wind events. A majority also reported being strongly affected by storm surges, sea-level rise, and flooding.
Officials in 43 percent of inland communities said they were strongly affected by severe storms and high-wind events. About a third reported being strongly affected by heat waves and flooding.
Municipal officials who responded to the UMass survey were kept anonymous, but many of the comments revealed frustration, concerns about funding, and at times, dire predictions if action is not taken immediately on climate change.
“[We are] trying to figure out what to armor, and when to retreat and how to pay for this,” said an official from a coastal town. “We know it is only a matter of time, as shorelines are washing away faster and faster. Right now property values are surging, because of our attractiveness, but one good storm, things will change.”
An official from a coastal city fretted over the slow pace of the community’s response: “Fear is preventing us from doing anything. Fear of an exodus of residents. Fear of lawsuits.”
Warned another official from a coastal city: “The barriers are money and disbelief.”
Municipal officials are often the first responders when a weather crisis strikes. They’re also in the position to help identify a threat ahead of time.
“That’s where climate change shows up — in our neighborhoods. And it’s local governments that are on the ground dealing with the challenge,” said Geoff Beckwith, who leads the Massachusetts Municipal Association,which includes leaders from cities and towns.
Some help is in sight, however.
Local efforts got a boost from the state’s recent $4 billion COVID-19 relief package, which included about $100 million primarily for climate resiliency through the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program, Beckwith said. Another $100 million in the package is for water and sewer projects, much of it climate-related due to overwhelmed infrastructure.
Beckwith praised the relief funding as “an important first step,” but said more resources are needed to address climate change. In addition to infrastructure money, he said, cities and towns need the resources to add new staff to work on climate issues.
Officials in some of the communities that participated in the UMass survey told the Globe they are working to respond to climate change.
Newton has joined a group of suburban communities to address climate-related flooding events that officials said are becoming more common.
That kind of flooding was seen in August 2021, when Newton’s Cheesecake Brook overflowed as the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred passed through the region. A vehicle caught in the flood water collided with a footbridge and destroyed the structure, which the city is working to replace.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in a statement afterward that communities “must act” to address flooding concerns.
In Scituate, residents and local leaders have watched as their town experiences increasingly severe weather, according to Town Administrator James Boudreau, and climate resiliency is a priority.
Every time there is a nor’easter, Scituate “gets it right on the chin,” Boudreau said. “The storms seem to be greater ferocity, the damage seems to be higher than it seemed in the past. So it’s right at the top of our list.”
The town is working to build new seawall projects at Cedar Point and on Oceanside Drive. But even if Scituate secured competitive state or federal grants that reimburses up to three-quarters of the expected costs, the town would need to come up with $8 million to $9 million for the two projects combined, according to Boudreau.
The town must balance those issues with other responsibilities — such as supporting local schools and public safety, he said. “Add to that the cost of climate resiliency, and it gets challenging,” Boudreau said.
In Chelsea, local officials are working against a deadline.
Roughly half the city is expected to be vulnerable to coastal flooding by 2070, as sea levels rise an estimated 3 feet, according to a 2017 study commissioned by the city and the state Office of Coastal Zone Management.
Chelsea’s low-lying areas are, on average, less than 10 feet above sea level. In addition to the Mystic River, the city abuts Chelsea Creek and the Island End River, making it especially vulnerable to flooding.
Without sufficient protection, the human cost from increased coastal flooding would be unimaginable if many residents were driven from their homes, said Alexander Train, the city’s director of housing and community development.
The city of about 41,000 residents has a large immigrant population, and many people do not have the economic resources to respond to such a crisis, Train said.
The flood areas also include the New England Produce Center near the Everett line, which helps supply the region’s grocery stores. Storage facilities for fuel are located along Chelsea’s eastern shore.
The 2018 storm was seen by locals as a sign of things to come. The hardest hit areas from flooding were Marginal Street and the homes close to Marginal and Willow streets, according to Maltez, Chelsea’s public works director.
Bongiovanni, whose GreenRoots office is located on Marginal Street, said she saw firsthand how nearby homes and businesses were flooded in the 2018 storm.
“Environmental justice communities must be prioritized for climate investments. Low-income communities and communities of color have borne the burden of disproportionate toxic pollution for decades,” she said. “These same communities cannot and should not shoulder the burden of significant climate impacts as well.”
The city’s fire chief, Leonard Albanese, said severe weather events are more damaging and prevalent than they were in the past.
“There is no doubt that climate change is affecting the intensity and severity of these storms,” Albanese said.
The Chelsea community is moving to protect itself from increasingly extreme weather, officials said. The city has secured assistance from the Barr Foundation to provide a pair of staff members to help work on climate issues. The city also is developing physical infrastructure to better protect against coastal flooding, and strengthening relationships between the city and residents so officials can better respond to residents’ concerns.
The city also participates in efforts like the state Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, and has worked with lawmakers — including US Representative Ayanna Pressley — on a project to protect Chelsea and neighboring Everett from coastal flooding.
Ultimately, local leaders believe the resiliency of Chelsea’s residents and community “is on us,” Maltez said.
“If we do nothing,” he said, “what occurred on Jan. 4, 2018, is going to happen several times a year.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.