Boston’s signs are notoriously difficult to follow. A nuisance for locals, a nightmare for tourists – our signage can point you the wrong way, or not be there for you at all. But what about all those signs that purportedly lead you to safety?
If you’re walking or driving around Boston, you’ve probably seen them – blue and white signs usually decorated with arrows and the simple phrase “Evacuation Route.” As climate change is projected to raise our city’s sea levels and increase the likelihood of more extreme storms, we decided to test our city’s plans for emergency evacuations and follow the evacuation route signs out of town.
Turning off our Google Maps and Waze, we start in analogue at the Fish Pier on the South Boston waterfront on what we imagine is the frontline of sea level rise – where the next big storm will hit.
But even along the harbor, finding our first sign is surprisingly difficult. We take a right on Seaport Boulevard, cross the bridge past The Barking Crab restaurant, turn onto Atlantic Avenue – all along the water, and nothing. We’re antsy driving around on a clear, sunny day; we can’t imagine the panic that we’d feel if we were bracing for the next Superstorm Sandy.
We try to cheat by looking at the evacuation map we printed out from the City of Boston’s website, but it’s not much help. On the key, the color red denotes the evacuation route – but red is also used for “other numbered highways” and the Red Line. 
Getting desperate, we ask a worker in the North End for some advice. Does he know how to evacuate the city?
“I’m under the belief that it goes this way,” he said, pointing to where we’d already searched without luck. “But if you go to the next major intersection up the street, you might see something.”
We try to follow his directions, but it’s not until we drive through Beacon Hill and pop out on Beacon Street by the Public Garden that we finally have some success: we see our first evacuation route sign. 

After all this hunting, it feels like a victory. When we hop out of the car to take a picture, we draw the attention of a young woman named Carolyn.
She’s lived in Boston her whole life, but she has never looked up her evacuation route. She knows it’s there for an extraordinary event like a natural disaster, but prefers to take a survivalist approach instead of following the city’s exit strategy.
“I think I’ll just go to my roof or dig myself out,” she said. “There are kayaks on the river, I can swim.”
We follow the signs west on Beacon Street and our progress starts to pick up – it seems we’re seeing these white and blue signs on every other block. At Massachusetts Avenue, we’re given the option of taking a right over the bridge into Cambridge, but as soon as we cross over, we lose the trail. We retrace our drive to Beacon Street, but the route goes cold again when we hit Brookline.
A police officer doesn’t offer much help. “Go straight,” he told us. “Evacuate quick.”
Staying the course makes some sense to us, although in the frenzy of an evacuation, we sense that it would be more assuring to have that validation along the road. Then there’s the question that has been gnawing at us since the beginning of our journey: where do all these signs lead? Is there a designated safety zone?
We head to City Hall to find out. “The signs really serve as a guide,” said Rene Fielding, director of Boston’s Office of Emergency Management. “If the event is occurring that we need to evacuate people, but that road is going to lead you into that threat area, police are going to be along the way saying, ‘no you need to go this way.’”
Fielding said the Mayor Menino administration put up the signs 10 years ago, after Hurricane Katrina. After hitting two dead ends, we’re not surprised to learn the city did not coordinate with neighboring communities.
“We have heard from our surrounding jurisdictions that there’s an issue of, you kind of get left at their border, and where do you go from there?” said Fielding. “The current plan, we’re looking at that, and we’re working with all of our communities to make sure that if we have a route going into their community, they’re aware of it, and that it also kind of picks up.”
The ‘current plan’ Fielding’s talking about is an improved emergency response for the city that’s been in the works for several years. In it, there are updated evacuation routes, emergency shelters and better coordination with the state and neighboring communities. Boston’s also looking to other cities that are further ahead in this kind of planning.
“When you look at some of the best prepared areas of the United States, it’s the areas that have suffered either the worst losses or the biggest scares,” said Brian Wolshon, a professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State University and an authority on emergency evacuation planning and management. 

“It’s hard for politicians, transportation agencies and the general public to get behind something that they don’t see is really worthwhile. It’s difficult to envision spending a lot more money worrying about a lot of things that may never happen,” he added.
The U.S. in general has lagged behind in preparing for climate change. But with Boston’s sea levels projected to rise 6 to 10 feet by the end of the century, this kind of planning isn’t abstract. 

It’s unclear when the city’s new plan will go into effect, but Boston likely won’t invest more in evacuation signs. Instead, it’s just beginning to look at higher-tech strategies like mobile apps, catching up with other parts of the world that have been quicker to take climate change seriously.

This story is part of WGBH’s collaborative series with The GroundTruth Project, called Rising Tide: Boston Underwater, looking at how the Bay State is preparing for climate change.

Marissa Miley is The GroundTruth Project’s Health and Environment Editor. 

Rachel Rohr is head of digital for The GroundTruth Project and managing producer of the upcoming season of the GroundTruth podcast.