Are East Coast Cities Prepared for Impacts of Hurricane Irene?

As Hurricane Irene pushes closer and closer, East Coasters are nervously tracking her course and bracing for impact. I, for one, am trying to impress upon my wife and kids – presently vacationing on a barrier island south of Long Island, New York – that no matter how cool the waves look and how adept at boogie-boarding they think they are, they need to be careful.

Questions abound. What kind of damage will Irene do? Is your city prepared for it?

While it’s not clear what impact climate change might have on the frequency of hurricanes, they are likely to become stronger as sea surface temperatures increase. A recent NRDC report provides some insight – exploring similar anticipated impacts from extreme weather (including more frequent and intense storms, and increased flooding), which we expect to increase in various parts of the country as a result of climate change. 

The report – “Thirsty for Answers” – specifically looked at a dozen cities in the U.S., including three that are currently in the path of the storm: Boston, New York and Norfolk (VA).

Below is a breakdown of where those cities’ weaknesses lie, and what they’re doing to prepare for extreme weather, flooding and other coming impacts expected from climate change.


Boston’s relative sea level has increased 11.8 inches since 1900 and conservative projections are that sea levels could rise another 2 to 3.3 feet by 2100. As a result, the city and surrounding area is likely to experience more flooding related to storm surge, threatening vital coastal infrastructure such as Logan Airport, port facilities in Boston’s Inner Harbor and roadways.

Fortunately, the city has taken some steps to help reduce the kinds of impacts it expects to see from climate change, many of which are similar to what we could see from Irene – including increased flooding and more frequent and intense storms. These include:

  • Global Warming Solutions Act: A state law aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions between 10 percent and 25 percent below a 1990 baseline by 2020 and 80 percent below this baseline by 2050.  The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs is collaborating with other state agencies and the public to accomplish the act’s objectives.
  •  “Sparking Boston’s Climate Revolution”: A report released in April 2010 reiterates at a city level the goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act.  The report also notes several ongoing local adaptation efforts. For example, the Office of Emergency Management and the Boston Water and Sewer Commission are updating their plans to include climate change concerns, especially sea level rise and changes in storm intensity.
  • Reducing Flood Risks:  Some waterfront development projects, such as the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and Seaport Square, are reducing future flood risks from rising sea levels by placing ground floors and critical systems at higher elevations.
  • International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives’ Climate Resilient Communities program: Boston was selected in November 2010 to participate in the Climate Resilient Communities program developed by ICLEI USA. Participants in the program receive access to adaptation resources and technical support to guide adaptation planning.


With 578-miles of waterfront, New York City could experience a 2- to 5-inch sea level rise by 2020, a 7- to 12-inch rise by 2050 and a12- to 23-inch rise by 2080. Higher sea levels, coupled with the likelihood of more frequent and intense storms, are expected to cause coastal flooding throughout New York, threatening the city’s low-lying infrastructure, including roads, subway and rail lines and LaGuardia airport.

Also on that list are the city’s sewage treatment plants and already-overburdened sewer systems. Sea level rise, increased coastal flooding, more frequent and intense rainstorms, and increased precipitation all threaten the functioning of this critical infrastructure.

We rely dearly on this infrastructure – as the recent fire at a Harlem sewage plant reminded us when it poured millions of gallons of sewage into the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, closing beaches, and making fishing and other recreation unsafe. As the report explains, more frequent and intense storms to the NYC region will only exacerbate our current sewage overflow problem. That’s why it’s critical we make our systems more resilient, with methods like increased green infrastructure (like park space, green roofs, porous pavement and roadside plantings) to reduce their workload.

Fortunately, as my colleague Larry Levine explains, “New York City is ahead of many other cities in terms of evaluating its climate change vulnerabilities and scoping out potential adaptation measures. The city has already implemented some common-sense measures to protect key water infrastructure, such as ‘rais[ing] pump motors, circuit breakers, and controls at the Rockaway Wastewater Treatment Plant from 25 feet (7.6 meters) below sea level to 14 feet (4.3 meters) above sea level.’”

There’s much more to be done, but here’s what the city is already doing:

  • PlaNYC: a city-wide sustainability plan established in 2007 to address climate change mitigation and adaption efforts.
  • NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Climate Change Task Force’s “Climate Change Assessment and Action Plan”: includes a range of tasks and actions, such as working with the science community to improve climate change projections, determining climate change impacts and related costs to water systems, identifying and implementing response strategies, and a commitment to reduce operational greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Water system resiliency: NYC DEP past and future strategies include rebate programs for water conservation, green infrastructure strategies to reduce runoff and sewer overflows, maximizing water supplies from existing facilities,  and infrastructural improvements to enhance reliability of water distribution systems.
  • Addressing climate change: NYC DEP now includes climate change impacts in the City Environmental Quality Review process, takes projected sea and tide levels into consideration in sewer design and discharge points, includes climate change as a risk when prioritizing projects, and identifies vulnerable infrastructure and includes flood protection measures in capital improvement funding cycles.
  • New York City Panel on Climate Change: convened by Mayor Bloomberg in 2008, the panel is composed of climate, legal, insurance, and risk management experts, and supports the New York City Climate Change Adaption Task Force.
  • Department of City Planning’s “Vision 2020”: a comprehensive waterfront plan that, among other goals, aims to identify strategies for building resilience to sea level rise and more intense storm events.  In the short term, the city will update PlaNYC to address climate resilience to flooding, study best practices for resilience to flooding and storm surge, incorporate climate change projections into waterfront infrastructure design standards, work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update flood insurance rate maps, and integrate climate change preparedness into emergency planning preparedness.


Norfolk, which ranks 10th in the world for the value of assets exposed to flooding from sea level rise, has taken some steps to prepare for impacts like those we may see from Irene – including increased flooding and more frequent and intense storms – but there is still much to be done.

Sea level in Norfolk has steadily risen 14.5 inches over the past 80 years. The combination of sea level rise and land subsidence will make flooding a major concern for Norfolk this century. If projections hold true, much of the city could be underwater by 2100 if an extensive levy system or other protections are not developed, posing a serious threat to vital transportation infrastructure such as the city’s active port and Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. And, in an analysis of the past 80 years, five of the seven most significant storm surges have occurred since 1998. 

Developed areas and transport systems are especially vulnerable to storm-surge flooding. More intense rainfall can also impact water quality by causing runoff, which increases amounts of bacteria and algae that can lead to water borne disease and pollution.

The economy in Norfolk is tied closely to industries located on the coast, especially the three major naval facilities and the Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminal. These facilities are vulnerable to storm surge flooding, and damage could affect the area’s economy as well as impairing the readiness of U.S. forces. The Norfolk Naval Base, a 4,300-acre site, is the largest naval facility in the United States and home to more than 500 buildings, an infrastructure supporting surface and submarine vessels, and an airstrip supporting aircraft. With an average elevation of 8 to 10 feet above sea level, the site already experiences storm surge-related flooding, which the Navy anticipates will be exacerbated by sea level rise. 

So far, here are some of the steps Norfolk, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy have each taken to prepare for impacts like this:

  • Carbon footprint inventory: Norfolk is developing a carbon footprint inventory, to be completed by 2012, that will include a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target and strategies for achieving this goal.
  • plaNorfolk2030: The city currently is updating its general plan to include climate change impact considerations such as sea level changes.
  • Flood vulnerability analysis: The city has hired a Dutch coastal engineering firm to conduct a flood vulnerability assessment. The firm has developed a flood forecast model that estimates flood depths based on tide elevation data. The model will allow the city to assess costs related to flood mitigation strategies, and apply the assessment to a long-term flood plan that prioritizes funding and the implementation of flood improvement projects.
  • Chesapeake Inundation Prediction System: An important tool to make predictions about climate change impacts, this system uses high resolution hydrodynamic models and elevation data to aid in flood predictions.
  • Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program: This partnership between the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy evaluates the environmental and ecological impacts of climate change on military installations.  One study focuses on evaluating the risks to coastal military installation assets and mission capabilities in the Hampton Roads region from climate change impacts.
  • U.S. Navy Climate Change Road Map: This was released in 2010 by the Navy’s “Task Force Climate Change” to guide Navy policy, strategy and investment plans related to a changing global climate. It prioritizes the development of recommendations for Navy investments to meet climate change challenges, including the protection of coastal installations vulnerable to sea level rise and water resource challenges for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

As the Boy Scout motto goes: Be Prepared. With climate scientists forecasting more frequent and intense storms as a result of climate change, those words were never truer. Luckily, Boston, New York and Norfolk are beginning to take note. Let’s hope it proves beneficial as they face down Irene this weekend.