Since early Friday morning, calls have been crackling across the Duxbury Fire Department dispatch center in a barrage of static. “Tree down on a house on Mayflower Street.” “Wires down on at Keene Street and Congress.” The seaside Massachusetts town is now firmly in the grips of Winter Storm Riley, the massive Nor’Easter forecasted to explosively develop through the weekend across a 700-mile swath of New England. With onshore winds already topping a hurricane-force 70 miles per hour, and a full moon Thursday night, officials across the region are preparing for record coastal flooding events.
They just didn’t expect to be inundated again so soon. Though it’s looking like it will be one of the most monstrous superstorms in history, Riley isn’t even the first one to hit this densely populated part of the country this year.
From Boston to Portland, Maine, January’s “bomb cyclone” broke long-standing flood records set during the Blizzard of ‘78. This weekend’s storm could be worse. Eastern Massachusetts is expected to get up to five inches of rain, but it’s the three to five feet of storm surge that will cause the biggest flooding problems. Because it’s such a slow-mover, the storm will stick around for several tidal cycles.
This is just beginning to look like the new normal. Nor’easters are now to blame for 90 percent of Boston’s biggest floods, with 13 of the top 20 events having occurred since 2000. As climate change drives up ocean temperatures, these winter cyclones are expected to get stronger too. Rising sea levels will bring those destructive storm surges into with more and more homes, businesses, and other critical infrastructure.
Which is why places like Duxbury are already beginning to insure against their water-logged future. Just two weeks ago, the 15,000-person town added a camouflaged, ex-military high water vehicle to its fire department’s fleet. With 44-inch-high tires, the truck is designed for flood rescues and evacuations. During the January storm similar vehicles were staged at a nearby national guard outpost, but when Duxbury residents needed them, they couldn’t get through—the request volume was too high.
“We’re seeing these storms getting worse and coming more often. When there’s flooding you can’t get an ambulance in, you can’t get a fire engine in. This allows to handle all our calls, not just the rescue ones,” says Duxbury fire captain Rob Reardon, who acquired the vehicle for free as surplus from Fort Drum in New York. “We realized we have to have this capability ourselves.” It arrived just in time for this weekend’s storm. Reardon installed the license plates yesterday, and will be taking the 10pm to 2am shift tonight around the peak of the high tide, when they expect flooding to be at its worst.
Duxbury’s not the only municipality looking to beef up its catastrophe response competency in the face of increasingly extreme weather. After Hurricane Harvey exposed glaring inadequacies in the Houston Fire Department’s ability to get to its citizens during a flood, city officials are now considering spending $2 million on six high water vehicles, as well as boats and other rescue equipment.
These kinds of disaster mitigation techniques are likely to feature more and more prominently in coastal city budgets in the coming years. But building resilient communities will also require investments in infrastructure to protect from flooding in the first place. And, of course, supporting energy policies that won’t power future generations of superstorms.
Wondering why “bomb cyclones” are suddenly a thing? It’s basically just another term for Nor’easter.
They’re no joke, though; when one of these storms hit the East coast in January, it nearly took out JFK airport.
This is just one class of extreme weather we can expect to see more of, on average, as climate change messes with our weather systems.