In a vulnerable city, East Boston stands alone against rising tide

East Boston is particularly vulnerable to flooding after sea level rise.

By Jared Bennett


East Boston is particularly vulnerable to flooding after sea level rise.
East Boston is particularly vulnerable to flooding after sea level rise. Courtesy of the Boston Harbor Association.

Hurricane Sandy missed Boston by a hair, but the damage it left served as a wake-up call to policy makers and citizens. The $68 billion in damages underscored environmentalists’ warning:  a coastal city like Boston is ripe for flooding and super storms induced by climate change.

In the Maverick Landing apartment complex in East Boston, a painting hangs at the mark flood waters would reach had Hurricane Sandy hit Boston instead of New York and New Jersey. It’s a small reminder that activists are leaving throughout the neighborhood, which faces unique dangers and complications when preparing for sea level rise.

Because East Boston’s population is especially vulnerable to a natural disaster, the Neighborhood Office of Affordable Housing (NOAH) is taking steps now to prepare for a rising tide. At a meeting at Maverick Landing, Jack Wiggin, the director of the Urban Harbor’s Institute at UMass Boston explained the basics of climate change and sea level rise, with Spanish translators to make sure everyone got the message. Wiggin said that as temperatures rise, ice melts at the poles and on Greenland, and the ocean’s water expands. “Think of it like water rising up a bowl,” Wiggin said.

High tides are expected to creep up the coastline, potentially rising up to two feet by 2050 and between three to six feet by 2100. This will create an immediate danger due to increased storm surges, or water rushing inland during severe storms. The Boston Harbor Association estimates the risk of storm surge using the Mean Higher High Water levels plus five feet (MHHW+5) and Mean Higher High Waters plus seven and a half feet (MHHW+7.5). MHHW+5 measures the potential storm surge when added on to the current high tide levels, resulting in about 9 feet of water. The association estimates that at MHHW+7.5 levels, 30 percent of Boston would be under about 12.5 feet of water.

Chris Marchi, of NOAH and an East Boston resident, said “East Boston is hypervulnerable. It has an old housing stock, a dense housing stock and population, and immigrants that are living in some stage of poverty.”

East Boston was once a chain of five islands. The areas between those islands were filled in as Boston grew and currently sit well below the original land masses, as low as one foot above sea level in some areas. “The problem is when they filled them in, the landfill areas are very low,” Wiggin said. “Water four to six feet deep and you can see, they become islands again.”

East Boston was once five separate islands. Courtesy of the Boston Harbor Association.
East Boston was once five separate islands. Courtesy of the Boston Harbor Association.

Some of the city’s adaptations to climate change are well known. The Spaulding Rehabilitation Center’s efforts to build a lasting infrastructure are heralded. But, Marchi said, the population of a neighborhood like East Boston might not have the knowledge nor available resources to enact such efforts on a large scale. “East Boston has in some ways a chip on its shoulder, ” Marchi said. “We are an island, both physically, politically, and economically.”

The first obstacle climate activists in East Boston must overcome is a lack of knowledge about environmental issues. The nature of a neighborhood like East Boston is a particularly hard nut to crack for environmental activists like Marchi. “People see the environment as what’s right in front of them,” Marchi said, “and the more densely populated, more urban and less educated a population is, the more the environment becomes ‘what’s right in front of my nose.’”

To further complicate the matter, only 39 percent of East Boston residents speak English at home, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. 41 percent speak Spanish, and Marchi counts five other statistically significant languages in the area, including Italian, Haitian and Arabic. With so many languages present, reaching all of East Boston’s residents with evacuation notices or information about a coming storm is a difficult task.

NOAH’s team of youth volunteers made rounds in a section of East Boston in November of 2013, passing out fliers in both Spanish and English and recording their neighbors awareness of climate related flooding. Their first outing resulting in a 12 percent awareness. As a response, NOAH left more fliers on doorknobs and small pamphlets in mailboxes. After a few weeks, NOAH returned with the same survey and found the awareness level had risen to 40 percent. Such a large increase in awareness suggests to Marchi that preparing East Boston for potential floods is a difficult but necessary project.

Marchi and NOAH take a single-minded focus on preparing East Boston for sea level rise, one that is ultimately more effective. “Sea level rise isn’t as interesting to me as far as how it is causing storm surge,” said Marchi. That means while larger advocacy groups fail to gain traction, NOAH offers manageable solutions to help East Boston residents prepare for the worst.

“The goal is to make it personal. Give people things they can do. ‘What do I need to do in my house?'” he said. That means providing people with waterproof bags to store identifying documents, a checklist of emergency supplies and do-it-yourself preparations like stacking sandbags in front of basement windows.

At April’s Maverick Landing meeting, East Bostonians in attendance offered suggestions to reach their neighbors. The input of East Boston residents, Marchi and Wiggin believe, will help policy makers tailor their message for maximum impact.  Resident Salvatore Barrile explained that the way to reach most people is through necessity. “I’m a landlord. I own my house, that’s why I’m here,” Barrile said. “Require tenant managers to have conversation with tenants, use landlords and assessing department, then people will have to listen.”

More daunting tasks involve evacuation and shelter plans. “The nearest Shaw’s is three and a half feet above sea level,” Wiggin said. “So if we have seven feet of storm water, that’s going to be a big problem for everyone.” The nearby Umana Academy is listed as an emergency shelter, but it is also positioned in a prime flood zone. Evacuation routes often necessitate underground tunnels that would potentially flood, and almost always cut through the center of the neighborhood where flooding would almost be guaranteed. “You can see, this is a reality that hasn’t really been planned for,” Marchi said.

Ana Guzman attended the meeting in Maverick Landing with a translator to relay the presentation to her native Spanish. After the meeting, she volunteered to help organize her neighbors around the cause. “Franky, I’m scared,” Guzman said through her translator. “I used to live close to the ocean in the past, and I have seen it happen before. How would they evacuate people here?”

These structural issues are frightening for any neighborhood, but the immigrant and isolated population in East Boston is again especially vulnerable. “You’ve been here for five years, you can see a measure of stability, everything works for you,” said Marchi. “If you were suddenly isolated for three days or three weeks even, without food, without day care, that can really affect your situation, the resiliency.”

NOAH has been holding a series of three more community meetings in different parts of East Boston in April and May to help inform more residents. The first aimed to reiterate the causes and potential damages associated with sea level rise, followed by two more to develop action plans based on the insights of East Boston residents and visiting scientists and policymakers.

(Data courtesy of the Boston Harbor Association)

About jared_bennett 3 Articles
Jared is a multimedia journalist and graduate student at Emerson College. He currently works at WBUR as a freelance digital producer and at the Conservation Law Foundation helping to communicate ocean conservation issues. Jared uses creative digital storytelling to shed light on environmental, social and public affairs issues.