, Salem, MA

October 7, 2013

Letter: The time is now to plan for future floods

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

Each year, there is always some debate in most New England cites and towns as to how much money to allot for snow removal. It’s not exactly something anyone really wants to spend a big chunk of the budget on, but on the other hand, you need it to keep going. It’s often been cited by a number of news organizations that it’s been a habit to aim low, hope for the best, and then authorize emergency funding when the city in question runs short midway through the season. After we all got buried two winters ago, and citizens were understandably angry that they suddenly had no way to get to work or even the grocery store, it seemed that most local councils decided to get more realistic and just allot for what is actually a pretty predictable situation. It’s New England; the winters are long, and that usually means a lot of snow, right?

So, what to make of the new FEMA flood zone mapping that just became available to the public a week or so ago? If you haven’t had a look, it’s not the easiest system to navigate, but I urge you to do so. Looking over the areas of Salem and its neighboring towns, it’s a pretty sobering glimpse into what also is a “predictable” future, though, hopefully, not “seasonal for a few years yet! FEMA states that the flood zones are depicting a “theoretical once-in-every-100-years flood potential,” but I don’t think any of us can really say that’s the way the weather has been trending. The so-called “once-in-a-lifetime storms” have been happening all around the country now with quite a bit of regularity. Practically every six months, we are seeing once-in-a-lifetime storms hitting in some new place, Colorado just being the most recent.

With Hurricane Sandy last year, we, frankly, were just lucky that it didn’t hit a mere 100 miles farther up the coast. In the Salem flood zone mapping, it’s pretty clear that one serious storm surge could very well devastate a good 20 percent of the city, hitting the lower downtown business district particularly hard, along with more than half of Willows, just about everything between Bridge Street and Collins Cove. It appears the power station is not in the zone, but almost everything around it is, and the large sub-station off Peabody Street is completely within the zone. If you recall, it was this type of substation that took out a great deal of power in New York City last year.

So, the immediate question must certainly be how will the city plan for when, not if, a big storm surge hits? And long-term, it’s not hard to imagine that with this week’s confirmation that (big surprise) global warming is real, it’s not going away, and the oceans are going to rise whether we “believe” it or not. It also doesn’t take much imagination to realize that what the FEMA maps represent as “flood zones” now, will in 10 to 20 years just be high-tide lines. So, getting back to how towns and cities have often under-planned for our very predictable snowstorms, it’s going to take some real leadership and fortitude to start planning for what will be equally predictable, but with far worse consequences if ignored. As this is campaign season of a number of local cities; it’d be nice to hear a few of those candidates who are running for office start to address this.

Doug Bowker