SALEM — This is a city that floods.
In 1996, it flooded so badly that residents of Jefferson Avenue took to boats and literally swam from house to house. Even on sunny days, the water sometimes rises on Canal Street at high tide.
So, what would happen if Salem were hit by a big storm, like Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the coastline of New Jersey and New York two years ago?
Stephen Young, a professor at Salem State University, and a group of his geography students took on that very topic and produced some alarming maps and statistics that were recently shared with city officials.
For starters, a storm of that magnitude would put three critical resources — the Department of Public Works and the police and fire department headquarters — underwater.
“It’s showing us that the major routes that evacuate the city get flooded in certain places,” said Young. “The Fire Department (i.e. headquarters on New Derby Street) gets flooded, the Police Department gets flooded. ... I’m not predicting this will happen, but it’s something that could happen, and I think it’s good to know.”
If this were an isolated report, it would be one thing. But it’s not. While Salem State was working on its study, using complex computer models, the city was starting work on a climate change vulnerability assessment. In fact, city consultants turned in similar maps showing virtually the same dire consequences in the event of a superstorm.
“The threat is real,” said Jeff Elie, the city’s energy and sustainability manager. “Climate change is happening. It’s not a debate. ...
“If you just look at the maps, much of the downtown is in that flood area, as well as very populated neighborhoods along the water, including The Point. Most coastal communities that have active waterfronts are highly vulnerable.”