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New Bedford’s hurricane lesson for Boston

New Bedford City Planner David A. Kennedy walks atop the New Bedford-Fairhaven Hurricane Barrier during a tour. The homes in the background are in the South End neighborhood of the city.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The hurricane damage back then rivaled what we’ve seen in Houston, Florida, or Puerto Rico, except the site of the devastation was New Bedford. A brutal storm walloped the Whaling City in the pre-storm-warning days of September 1938, killing 45 people in the city and nearby communities, and leaving some neighborhoods under eight feet of water.

Then, in 1954, two hurricanes hit in 11 days. The worst slammed into the city on Aug. 31, with a storm surge of 14 feet, claiming 68 lives in the area and doing some $50 million in damage.

New Bedford had had enough. In 1962, construction began on the New Bedford Hurricane Protection Barrier. Completed in 1966 at a cost of about $18.6 million, or $151 million in today’s dollars, the barrier now protects four-fifths of the area flooded by the 1938 and 1954 hurricanes. The main sea-wall barrier, which includes a 150-foot-wide ship passage with massive steel gates, runs across the New Bedford-Fairhaven Harbor, while extensions protect other parts of New Bedford and Fairhaven. All told, it’s 3.5 miles of stone storm shield, with heights varying from 20 to 23 feet, the longest such barrier on the East Coast.

Jeff Monty, a truck driver from Fairhaven, remembers standing on the barrier during Hurricane Bob, the 1991 storm that ranks as one of the costliest in New England history. Large waves slammed against it, the spray flying over the top. But the wall blocked the hurricane’s eight-foot ocean surge, protecting the harbor, with its industrial areas, boat yards, and commercial and recreational marinas.


“It did its job awesomely,” says Monty. “This thing is worth its weight in gold.”

And, with the federal government paying 62 percent and the state another 19 percent, a historic bargain for New Bedford (which paid 17 percent, or $3.1 million), Fairhaven (1.7 percent), and especially Acushnet, which chipped in $35,000.


Mind you, it offers more than storm protection. The hurricane gates are closed once or twice a month to prevent flooding from high tides driven by south or southwest winds.

With storms intensifying and sea levels rising due to global warming, Boston is starting to contemplate such a project. University scientists and city officials are exploring the possibility of a sea barrier that would run from Deer Island to Hull, a distance of some four miles. It could wend its way through some of the outer harbor islands, providing recreational access. Or it could cut a shorter route, from Deer Island to Long Island and then Moon Island, though that would leave Quincy, Braintree, Weymouth, Hingham, and Hull exposed.

It’s a project whose back-of-envelope cost guesstimate (low billions to $10 billion, with a more precise estimate expected in December) can impart sticker shock — until you consider the tens of billions in property value, and vital public assets like Logan Airport and the MWRA
sewage-treatment plant, it would protect in the low-lying areas in Boston and adjacent coastal communities.

One huge question, of course, is how such a project would be funded — an issue any number of coastal communities will face as they plan for the climate-change effects expected in the coming decades. That’s why US Senator Ed Markey says that he and fellow Senator Sheldon Whitehouse , a Rhode Island Democrat, will push to include coastline protection in any infrastructure bill Congress takes up.


“We are about to have a big debate over a $1 trillion infrastructure bill,” Markey notes. “Sheldon and I believe it is important to talk about how infrastructure spending should be used to deal with the rising tides and the issues that are being created by climate change to the shoreline of the country.”

Now, there’s an idea for you. After all, from Texas to Louisiana to Florida and right up the seaboard, even those coastal states represented by congressmen who don’t believe in global warming have seen the effects from the extreme storms that are becoming ever more common. They might deny the science, but they can’t deny the damage. That alone should be enough to prompt action.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.