Comprising some 1,000 acres, the Seaport District has been one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods, home to dozens of new high-rise office towers and condominiums. And while the Seaport is surrounded by water — the the Fort Point Channel is on one side and Boston Harbor on the other — virtually no one expected what they saw with the snow storm on Jan. 4.
“There was a dumpster that floated out of the alley,” said Kristin, who was working at the popular Flour bakery that day. She had a front-row seat to what everyone saw on the news. “I know everybody saw that video," said Kristin, who didn't provide her last name. "And then there were trash barrels floating down Farnsworth Street."
It was about that time when Rob Maloof left his office to rescue his car from what he thought was a water main break. Maloof said he quickly learned the rushing water was seawater. "There was a fellow outside of my building, and he dipped his hand in the water and took a taste of it, and it was like, ‘Oh yeah, that's sea water!’” he said.
The combination of record high tides and unusually high wind pushed water as high as waist-deep into several streets and surrounded many of the Seaport’s older buildings. But perhaps as surprising was how well newer construction held up to the storm. Charles, who did not give WGBH News his last name, works in a high rise on Fan Pier Boulevard. He says everything in his building appeared fine.
“At the end, around 2 o'clock, I went down to the lowest point in the garage and there was no water in there," he said.
Over at 50 Liberty, at a condo tower now going up along the water, a construction worker named Ben — who also did not give his last name — found the same. “We had no water in the building or down in the garage,” he said. "That’s a great sign. It means we did it right.”
Comments like that would please Austin Blackmon, Mayor Marty Walsh’s point man for coping with climate change. Blackmon says city planners knew that such flooding was inevitable. “Obviously it's shocking, but given all the work that we've done in studying how severe weather can impact the city of Boston and what we’re expecting in the future, it’s not surprising," he said.
For the last several years, Blackmon says the city's Climate Ready Boston initiative has actively encouraged property owners, especially those along the harbor, to think about resiliency. He noted some of the measures that have been considered. “Either elevating sites, putting in green infrastructure, whether those are berms or otherwise, maybe some seawalls, and then also looking at what we can do from a zoning perspective," he said.
But some environmentalists argue that's not enough. “Unfortunately, currently there are no state or city laws that mandate climate resilience,” said Deanna Moran of the Conservation Law Foundation. She says the city can encourage better planning, but can’t force it. “There are a lot of permitting processes through which developers are asked to think about climate impacts, but there are no hard and fast standards or codes," she said.
Moran adds that much of the public conversation is too focused on outmoded strategies, like seawalls and fortified piers. "For the last few decades, we've kind of been under this mindset of we have to keep the water out of our neighborhoods and what we need to learn how to do is allow the water in in a way where we can absorb and bounce back from the impacts," she said.
Moran wants more thought given to so-called 'green buffers,' which are open spaces like parks and living shorelines designed to absorb high tides. And, in fact, some new waterfront developments are planning to incorporate those, but not necessarily because of public regulations.
There's an even bigger force pushing change: insurers. “There's no question that the insurance industry is very much in tune with this phenomenon and certainly they are looking at all of the projects in our portfolio through the lens of climate change and sea level rise," said Yanni Tsipis, senior vice president of Seaport at WS Development, the Seaport's largest builder.
Tsipis says insurers are mandating resilient design to reduce their risk, but he adds that that often makes sense for developers, too. His firm raises the ground floor and the public areas around their buildings. And it paid off, he said, as his buildings “stayed high and dry through the course of the entire event.”
Ben, the construction worker at 50 Liberty, believes he probably would have been safer if he had stayed in the Seaport that day. He said he got caught in the tidal surge on North Shore Road as he tried to drive to his home north of Boston. “I actually had to get rescued by the fire department,” he said.