Is New England Ready for a Hurricane Harvey? (Or Even Another Ida?)

Five ways our communities can prepare for climate change impacts

Flooding in Rhode Island

A resident wades through a flooded street after the remnants of Hurricane Ida passed through the area, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Narragansett, R.I. Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman

UPDATE (September 2, 2021): As we head into the Labor Day weekend, New Englanders and New Yorkers are just starting to assess the damage from once-Hurricane Ida. By the time it reached us, Ida didn’t even rise to the level of a tropical depression. But that didn’t stop it from inflicting plenty of damage, from washing out subway service across New York City to flooding Boston’s Storrow Drive with up to four feet of water. Tens of thousands lost power and eight tornado warnings were triggered on Cape Cod.

Our region has seen hurricanes and tropical storms before, but, as we’ve just witnessed, it doesn’t have to be a storm of that magnitude to do significant damage. This year’s wet summer has shown that severe storms are becoming more common and intense, and they will only grow more frequent as the climate crisis deepens. 

It’s clear that, despite the planning that cities and towns across the region have done to meet the climate challenge, we are not moving fast enough. Here, we revisit a blog from 2018 about whether or not New England is ready for extreme weather. Four years later, we still have a ways to go.

In September 2017, Hurricane Harvey crashed into the Texas coastline, pummeling Houston and dropping a record 60 inches of rain on the Lone Star State. When all was said and done, 103 people lost their lives, and damage estimates topped $125 billion.

Harvey kicked off a series of catastrophic hurricanes in 2017, and the communities they hit are still dealing with the impacts. Irma slammed into the U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida, costing $50 billion. And the people of Puerto Rico continue to experience the aftereffects of Hurricane Maria, which caused $90 billion in damages and was responsible for more than 3,000 deaths.

New England Is Not Immune from Extreme Weather

New England has not faced a direct hit from a hurricane in decades – the last hurricane to make landfall here was Hurricane Bob, which hit New Bedford directly in 1991. But we have experienced our share of extreme weather in recent years. Tropical Storm Irene inundated Vermont villages seven years ago, and Superstorm Sandy was a near-miss. Snowmageddon brought Boston to a standstill in 2015, and just last year, two bomb cyclones in six weeks flooded coastal streets up and down New England’s coast.

With the magnitude of tropical storms and hurricanes intensifying because of climate change, we know it is only a matter of time before New England sustains a direct hit or glancing blow that will impact the entire region. And with our changing climate causing disarray in our winter weather as well, we can expect more erratic extremes of snow and cold, and the icy floodwaters that come with them.

So, is New England ready for the storm like Hurricane Harvey we know is certainly coming? The answer is no. But we can take steps to get there.

Actions New England Should Take to Prepare for Future Storms

The fact is that climate change is happening, and while we continue to push policies to stem it, we at CLF also believe that we must work to mitigate its impact on our infrastructure, our economy, and our communities. Boston’s Seaport district is just one example of continued blind development in the face of known climate impacts. So what can we do?

Here’s a short list:

  1. Require new developments to take climate into account. Currently no laws or regulations anywhere in New England mandate climate-resilient design for development. To say that they are overdue is an understatement – that should be rectified as soon as possible.
  2. Update building codes now. We need serious updates to building codes along waterfronts and other at-risk areas, and those updates should be grounded in forward-looking data.
  3. Reform zoning codes. We need zoning reform that gives cities and towns the power to protect our floodplains and other at-risk areas.
  4. Collect and share the costs of extreme weather. We need consistent, open reporting of the costs associated with climate change. This will equip state and local agencies with the knowledge they need to make informed policy. It will also empower residents with important facts regarding the safety and financial risks associated with their homes.
  5. Fortify critical infrastructure and hazardous facilities. We need universal standards for the placement of hazardous waste and critical infrastructure, including utilities and chemical and fuel storage sites, which takes climate risk into consideration. Hurricanes Sandy and Harvey should be lesson enough that these facilities cannot be left unfortified on floodplains and other at-risk areas if we hope to prevent disaster.

This is the New Normal, and We Need to be Ready

Record-breaking temperatures, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and floods have become the norm on daily news feeds rather than the exception. But we are not helpless in the face of climate impacts. If every New England state took the five actions above, we could strengthen and prepare our communities, our economy, and our environment.

These actions can’t wait – the costs of doing nothing are too high.

Before you go... CLF is working every day to create real, systemic change for New England’s environment. And we can’t solve these big problems without people like you. Will you be a part of this movement by considering a contribution today? If everyone reading our blog gave just $10, we’d have enough money to fund our legal teams for the next year.