I’m no climatologist, but it’s hardly a stretch to predict that someday Boston will get hit with a major hurricane. And given steadily rising sea levels and increasingly fierce, climate-change-driven storms, it’s not too hard to imagine it will be a Sandy or Harvey-sized monster.
But here’s a prediction you can take to the bank: When the dreaded superstorm finally hits the Hub, maybe three years from now, maybe 30, there will be no significant harbor wall or barrier to stop a surging Atlantic Ocean from flooding in, putting downtown under water and turning Beacon Hill into an island in a sea of wreckage.
And why is that? Because the political culture here in Massachusetts, which once spawned a revolution and later the abolition movement, is today one of narrow-minded, parochial and self-satisfied back slapping, where patronage and petty political gain rule.
In the wake of Harvey, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh bluntly summed up the danger. “If we got hit with a storm like this, if Harvey hit Boston Harbor, we’re wiped out as a city,” Walsh told Boston Herald Radio.
He then threw out an idea – now being studied by a group of engineers – for a $10 billion dam that would control the flow of water into Boston Harbor.
Sure, it may seem like a “crazy” number now. But should the worst happen, it would soon sound like a bargain, Walsh warned.
“If we got hit with Harvey, we’re probably talking $50 to $60 billion worth of damage,” Walsh told Boston Herald Radio. “Does that $10 billion figure look that crazy anymore?”
Sounds reasonable, but Walsh might as well have been yelling into Irma’s Category 5 winds given how seriously it is likely to be taken by the guardians of the state’s purse strings.
Complacency In The Legislature
It is hard to imagine such warnings, however prescient, prodding much action on Beacon Hill, where don’t-rock-the-boat incrementalism is king. Controlled for decades by Democrats, the supposed party of change, the Massachusetts Legislature has become a bulwark of the status quo, unable to take any meaningful measures to address a growing series of housing and infrastructure issues that have put a slow but deadly squeeze on the state’s once solid middle class.
Our long line of Republican governors – and Democrat Deval Patrick as well – haven’t been much better when it comes to facing up to the big, long-term challenges facing the state.
We are now well into the second decade of a housing crisis that is slowly strangling middle-class families with some of the highest home prices and rents across the country. There’s no mystery why it’s happening – there is almost universal consensus that more housing of all types is needed. But state lawmakers have proven unable to pass anything that would get at the root of the problem – stifling suburban zoning laws that have made it impossible the build the kinds of new housing the region needs in the quantity it needs it.
Our major highways have become increasingly gridlocked, with Route 128 well over capacity and becoming more so by the day. Even our local roadways are becoming impossible to navigate, with Boston-style gridlock now a fact of life in suburban town centers, and not just at rush hour.
And what should be the region’s safety valve – our once-respected system of public transportation – has become a slow-motion train wreck. Decades of underfunding is turning formerly reliable segments of the MBTA system, like the Red Line, into delay-prone basket cases. And forget about the commuter rail, which has become a bad joke, with delays the norm, especially on the Worcester line that cuts through the western suburbs.
So the track record of our state’s political class is none too reassuring when it comes to tackling new challenges.
It’s not as if Boston’s obvious vulnerability to an increasingly storm-tossed Atlantic is some new revelation. Incredibly, it has been nearly five years since Sandy tore into Manhattan and the Jersey coastline. It has also been widely acknowledged for a few years now that Boston barely dodged a bullet with Sandy, with the storm hitting at low tide instead of high. Since then, there have been repeated warnings academics and activists alike of Boston’s vulnerability to potentially devastating, storm-driven flooding.
Sure, some small but significant steps have been taken, including new city rules requiring Boston developers to move key building mechanical systems up and away from potential flood waters. But it has been nothing like New York’s multibillion-dollar plans to harden its defense against the rising sea. Instead, Boston’s mayor is still trying to convince people that the idea of spending billions on a harbor wall isn’t “crazy” talk.
Let’s hope it won’t take a major natural disaster to jolt the powers-that-be on Beacon Hill out of their short-sighted complacency, but at the moment, things aren’t looking so good.