Weathering the storms

Repairing Swampscott’s Eisman’s Beach seawall cap, walkway and steps, which took a beating during the March 3 Nor’easter, initially cost the town $10,000. Swampscott Public Works Director Gino Cresta estimated the Eisman’s seawall could cost up to $75,000 more with the repairs on target to be completed by next winter.

That’s not a lot of money when it comes to public spending, but multiply it 1,000, even 100,000-fold to calculate costs potentially associated with defending coastlines against storm flooding and rising sea levels.

Swampscott residents living near Eisman’s suffered during the March battering with water pouring into garages. People living on River Street in Lynn and in Boston’s Seaport District and dozens of other coastal locations sustained similar damage and inconvenience. They can easily identify with the Swampscott residents’ suffering.

Residents, public officials, business owners and anyone else living near the coast are barely getting a reprieve from storms before they have to worry about a new watery onslaught. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency officially declared last Friday the start of the 2018 hurricane season, warning the season could see “… a near, or above-normal number of hurricanes.”

Whew, can we get a break already?

The reality is that hurricanes and the specter of rising seas is a problem demanding imagination and potentially billions of dollars in preparedness and prevention spending.

Swampscott and Lynn have both looked at schematic designs for ocean breakwaters and barriers in the same way scientists look at space travel to Jupiter: It’s an intriguing idea but the scope, scale, and cost of the venture defies any definition of reality.

In February, 2016, a group of imaginative architects issued a somber warning about sea levels, and they extended an invitation. Arlen Stawasz and Tyler Hinckley suggested Lynn’s entire waterfront will be underwater by 2100. Ever the optimists, they imagined the notion of turning the waterfront into a Lynn version of Venice with “flood-resistant” movie theater, athletic complex and firehouse, as well as residential buildings.

“We reimagined the Lynnway as a multi-purpose barrier to resist flooding,” said Stawasz.

If that sounds far-fetched, even laughable, then Stawasz and Hinckley are happy to invite skeptics to visit Germany or the Netherlands where ocean flood planning is equated with common sense.

People will probably never navigate the Lynnway in gondolas, but long-term planning for rising sea levels and increasingly-ferocious storms is a challenge that has arrived. Meeting that challenge may not involve building giant walls or flood gates, but it may involve altering local zoning requirements to require more flood-resistant structures and raising streets and sidewalks when they come due for renovation.

First and foremost, it means accepting the reality of engagement from the neighborhood up to the state and federal level in discussion, and planning for a future that, more and more, seems to be solidifying into the present.

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