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2013 Law & Public Policy

Massachusetts must prepare now for flooding

Mattison_smBy Erica H. Mattison. Download as PDF.  Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for Northeast U.S. cities.  Climate change is expected to increase the risk of severe storms and flooding in the coming years.  To safeguard its population and resources, Massachusetts needs to do more to prepare.  State officials and a number of other public and private players will need to take action.  The state can play an essential role in setting the agenda and bringing together key stakeholders.

Damage from Hurricane Sandy is estimated at $50 billion.  The disaster has contributed to a growing realization that the predicted impacts of climate change are upon us.  As greenhouse gases warm the planet, scientists say we can expect impacts such as sea level rise, increased storm surge, and increased rainfall, which are projected to make for more substantial and frequent flooding.  Over the next several decades, global mean sea level rise is expected to increase between eight inches and six feet.

Sea level rise in Massachusetts is outpacing the global rate, due to changes in the strength of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a major current in the Atlantic Ocean, which plays an important role in the Earth’s climate system.  For the past 50 years, there has been increased precipitation in the American Northeast, a trend that is expected to continue.  Due to multiple factors, today’s 100-year floods are projected to take place every three to twenty years.  Over the next several decades, even without any climate change impacts, flooding poses a multi-billion dollar threat to Massachusetts.

Massachusetts has programs aimed at minimizing the state’s contribution to climate change.  The year 2008 was a time of landmark legislation, with the Global Warming Solutions Act establishing economy-wide greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, and the Green Communities Act paving the way with provisions for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

The state’s climate efforts have largely focused on minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, but a crucial element has not received enough attention: adaptation.  This involves preparing for the effects of climate change, recognizing that complete avoidance is no longer possible.  Adaptation calls for action by numerous industries.  Implementation delays will result in increased costs and heightened danger in the future, so timely action is essential.

As a first step in preparing for increased flooding, Massachusetts needs to develop a better understanding of the risks.  In its 2011 report, the state’s Climate Change Adaptation Advisory Committee said that one of the top needs is for up-to-date, more sophisticated analysis, to provide a solid basis for risk assessments and inform decision making.  Legislation introduced in the 2013-14 legislative session by State Senator William Brownsberger (D-Belmont) would help address this need. The legislation calls for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) to compile more sophisticated analyses of expected climate impacts and create a set of scenarios to provide a common basis for planning throughout the Commonwealth.

The bill also calls for several state agencies, responsible for billions of dollars of infrastructure, to conduct vulnerability assessments based on the common set of climate scenarios provided by EOEEA.  As case studies published by the Environmental Protection Agency demonstrate, such assessments can help with prioritization of needs.

Other players will also have to take action.  Since granting cities and towns Home Rule authority in the 1960s, Massachusetts has given municipalities the power to determine their own local affairs, such as land use decisions.  Therefore, municipal leaders also need to increase their understanding of community vulnerabilities, raise public awareness about flood risk, and make decisions that protect public and private assets.

In addition, there is a role for the federal government to play, particularly through the National Flood Insurance Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  In 2012, Congress passed flood insurance reform legislation that sets the stage for advancing climate preparedness.  To date, FEMA has only used historical data as the basis for updates to the Flood Insurance Rate Maps, but now the agency may take into account information about future changes in sea levels, precipitation, and storm intensity.  Also, subsidies are being phased out for severe repetitive loss properties and second homes.  FEMA’s actions as well as practices of re-insurance agencies have substantial financial implications for development and rebuilding throughout the country.

Finally, private sector developers and property owners are also in a position to improve flood preparedness.  Even before local governments initiate new requirements, developers and property owners can lead the way by constructing more resilient buildings that take into account expected impacts such as sea level rise, exemplified by Partners HealthCare’s new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in the Charlestown Navy Yard.

Preparing Massachusetts for floods requires a comprehensive approach involving many public and private actors.  As the state’s Advisory Committee noted in its 2011 report, the state has an important role to play by setting the agenda, ensuring broad and diverse participation, and coordinating efforts among public and private players.  Proactive measures have the potential to save billions of dollars.

Erica Mattison is in her final semester at Suffolk University Law School and is the university’s Sustainability Coordinator.  She obtained her B.A. from Commonwealth College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and her Masters in Public Administration from Suffolk University.   Erica assisted in the preparation of Senator Brownsberger’s legislation.  She plans to pursue a career in law and public policy.


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