4 Key Questions About the Surprising Winter Storm Grayson
By Erika Spanger-Siegfried
On Thursday in Massachusetts we were asking ourselves questions that have rarely, if ever, needed asking.
What happens when half-frozen seawater suddenly floods onto roadways? Can something the consistency of a milkshake and 3 feet deep be plowed? There's a large dumpster floating down the street … What depth of water is sufficient to do that? What happens if some of this water freezes in place before it retreats (as I write this, the temps have plummeted to 12 degrees F and dropping)? Will those cars now filled with seawater in the snow-emergency parking lot run again? What if the water freezes inside them over the weekend—can that punch out doors?
The stories are countless. In Salem, MA, my mother watched out her window as fire and rescue workers hauled someone to safety on a raft through at times waist-deep water.
My colleagues and I think about coastal flooding a lot, but the footage from Thursday had our brains buzzing with new unknowns and threats never considered.
I've been keeping an eye on social media, the news, and hearing from friends and family, and these three questions emerged for me as needing to be asked and answered.
1. Why was this flooding so much worse than forecast?
In the lead up to Thursday's storm, dubbed "Grayson" by the Weather Channel, the coastal flooding forecasts shifted from minor to moderate, from moderate to major. Coastal residents monitoring this would have been concerned but not nearly enough. Even as the storm was getting underway, the flooding forecasts greatly understated what actually played out on the ground.
In the end, severe flooding struck multiple areas of the coast of Massachusetts from the North Shore to the Cape, with chest-high water in some locations, emergency boat rescues, and damage that we're just beginning to take stock of. People were caught off guard, greatly increasing the risk to public safety and the damage to property. For example, below is a shot of the Gloucester High School parking lot where residents are instructed to park their cars in a snow emergency. Ouch.
Look closely! These are cars submerged in record coastal flooding in #Gloucester Massachusetts! People were asked t… https://t.co/Y0kYZZe7Uo— Sue Palka FOX 5 DC (@Sue Palka FOX 5 DC)1515166970.0
2. Why didn't we see this coming?
The reasons given by local meteorologists for the surprising severity are the astronomical high tide (Monday was a full moon) that coincided with the storm's path, and strong onshore winds creating significant storm surge and damaging waves. The tide itself is no mystery and our ability to forecast storm surge is pretty good. The wind speeds and snowfall totals were mostly as forecast. So where was the gap between our forecasting methods and tools and this storm's true coastal flood potential? And how do we close it?
3. Was this flooding made worse by climate change?
Boston's Mayor Marty Walsh declared "If anyone wants to question global warming, just see where the flood zones are. Some of those zones did not flood 30 years ago." And he did so while the storm was still lashing the city. The days of tiptoeing around this question are clearly over.
So, what can and can't be said here on sound scientific footing? Like any storm, there were a lot of factors responsible for Thursday's: wind speed and direction, and the resulting storm surge and wave height. And there are two ways that climate change plays a role in the impact of storms like this.
On the one hand, it can influence a storm itself—causing it to form faster, become stronger, etc., so that when it strikes, it has greater potential for doing damage. Tracing this to climate change is harder to do, but the science is catching up. As climate scientist and colleague Rachel Licker pointed out this week. "According to the American Meteorological Society's new report, science is now not only able to detect a climate change signal in individual extreme events, science is now able to determine whether climate change caused by humans was essential in the development of an extreme event. In other words, science is now at the point where it is able to tell us whether certain extreme events would or would not have happened without climate change."
We don't know the day after, however. Such research takes time. But I expect we'll hear more about the detection of climate change fingerprints on this storm in the months to come. See my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel's blog for more on this specific topic.
The other way climate change plays a role in the impact of storms is clear and can be discussed more definitively today: today's storms have higher water levels to "work with" due to sea level rise. In Boston, water levels have risen ~5 inches just since the blizzard of '78. (This upward trend is also responsible for the increased tidal flooding along Boston's waterfront.) So ANY storm that hits our coasts today is working with water that is higher and closer to our cities, buildings, homes and infrastructure, than when we first put them there.
It was interesting to note that the tide height associated with this storm topped the Blizzard of '78 by hundredths of an inch. In its defense, the Blizzard of 78 was working with an ocean that was 5 inches "shorter." If that exact storm happened today, the flooding would be worse than it was in 1978 given this additional water. And importantly, the damages would likely be worse as well, given the additional people, property and stuff we've put along our coasts since that time.
But speaking of comparisons. We released an analysis in 2017 that identified areas along the entire U.S. coast that would flood on a chronic basis, just with normal tidal fluctuations. By 2060, the general area of Boston that flooded Thursday would flood at least 26 times per year, irrespective of storms or rainfall, with a high rate of sea level rise. (Add storms and rainfall and the frequency rises.) That's about 45 years from now, well within the lifetime of the buildings and infrastructure we've built and continue to build in these areas. With a more moderate rate of sea level increase, it would flood chronically a couple of decades later.
Boston's storm-flooded area becomes it's tidally-flooded area later this century.
This sunny-day flooding—the kind seen today at places like Long Wharf during extreme high tides—wouldn't have the destructive waves of Thursday's storm. It would, however, put large areas under inches and potentially feet of sea water, it would be unaffected by the construction of major harbor storm barrier, and it would preclude business-as-usual along some of the busiest and highest-value parts of Boston's waterfront. Go to this link to view your own coastal community.
Importantly, our analysis also shows that a lower rate of sea level rise, associated with adherence to the Paris agreement, could greatly reduce this flooding.
4. What are some responsible takeaways?
We'll be taking stock of this storm for some time to come.
Boston, a city with a strong and growing commitment to coastal climate preparedness and resilience, an unsurpassed local expert community, and uniquely engaged business and philanthropic sectors, can emerge as an even stronger national leader in the wake of this storm.
Massachusetts, with its growing if patchy commitment to the same, can recognize its mounting exposure to coastal flooding and get much more serious on this front. Republican Governor Charlie Baker's executive order on state government adaptation efforts shows that sensible, bipartisan action is possible. Passage of the bill to establish a comprehensive adaptation management action plan (CAMP) would codify this order and represent a serious commitment toward tackling our climate risks.
The important takeaway for Boston, Gloucester, Scituate, Barnstable, Salem and on down the line—as well as for places in other states that dodged this bullet, this time—is not simply how do we prepare for storms like this. It's how do we prepare for a future—and to a certain extent, a present—where storms have the potential to be more destructive, and where no storm is needed for transformative flooding to occur. In Massachusetts, we can do that, and the sooner we start, the less costly and disruptive it will be.
Erika Spanger-Siegfried is a senior analyst in the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.