More Frequent Flooding Pushes One Town to Adapt

Jun 15, 2018

Nationwide, 2017 was a record year for high tide flooding across the country, according to a new analysis out from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And that trend is projected to continue into 2018. In coastal communities across Massachusetts, people are starting to take notice. 

A series of storms this winter convinced Rick Anderson, who owns R.W. Anderson & Sons, Inc. Builders in Sandwich, that something has to change. 

R.W. Anderson and Sons offices in downtown Sandwich flooded during a storm in March 2018.
Credit Courtesy Rick Anderson

His office is relatively close to the marsh, and during a couple of the storms this year, it flooded. At one point, Anderson had eight inches of water throughout the entire first floor. Outside, he says, it was even deeper – it looked to be about four or five feet deep in the street out front.

“So that’s pretty substantial. When you look out the window and you look at how much area that would cover, that was quite a flood.”

One thing Anderson says he’s sure of: “We’re going to have to do something. Because it just keeps happening.”

But it’s not clear to him yet exactly what that something is. Invest in sandbags? Build a wall? Raise the building?

The Sandwich Fire Department has already started making changes. The main station is just around the corner from R.W. Anderson, on 6A, and it flooded this winter, too. And not just once or twice, but four times.

“Prior to this winter I’ve only seen that happen twice in 23 years,” says Acting Fire Chief John Burke.

In addition to the flooding at the station itself, Burke says the department also had to rescue people from floodwaters.

“We had a car that was in the water, and they couldn’t roll the windows down because the water was up to the level of the window, and it was two dogs and two people in the car.”

The fire department didn’t have a truck with enough clearance to reach the car, so they improvised – by commandeering a DPW plow truck.

“We actually used the plow to push water aside and we actually came up behind the vehicle and pushed it off the roadway.”

That was just one of six cars got stuck that afternoon. Burke says that made the fire department realize a couple of things: they needed a high water truck, which they now have, for the first time ever. And they needed to start doing a new kind of training exercise, for swift-water rescues.

“Something has permanently changed,” Burke says. “And we have to permanently change the way we operate.”

Paul Tilton, director of the Sandwich DPW, says the town has already started upgrading some of its drainage systems to better manage storm water.
Credit Samantha Fields

Over at the Department of Public Works, the director, Paul Tilton, says he’s thinking about changing the way they operate, too. He’s the one everyone calls when roads are flooded or trees are down, whenever something needs fixing. And this past winter, a lot needed fixing.

Certain roads in Sandwich have always been prone to flooding – the ones that one right along the coast, or straight through the marsh. Roads like Dewey Ave.

“For each and every storm we’ll come out here and we’ll get our barricades and cones ready because we know it’s going to flood here,” Tilton says. “And at the end of the storm we’re walking in the salt marshes picking up our cones and barricades because they get washed out.”

Those roads are all on a list in his office. But that list is growing.

This winter, Tilton says, “we had some roads that I had not seen flood since I’ve been here. And those are new to me. So we’re adding those to the list, and keeping those on our radar for future preparation for some of these major storms.”

There was just so much water this year – from high tides and storm surge and heavy rain – that the culverts and drainage systems could not keep up. And the roads took a beating.

All up and down the East Coast, the same scene is playing out in low-lying coastal areas.

“Citizens are calling up the DPWs or the public works managers and saying hey what’s happening, you guys have got to do something about this,” says Jennifer Jacobs, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire. She researches tidal nuisance flooding, and she says it’s getting measurably worse.

“In the Boston area and in the Cape Cod area, what we saw in 2000 was that we had about two nuisance floods that year. In 2010 we had six nuisance floods. By 2060 we’re looking at about 50, so we’re talking about one a week.”

In Massachusetts, about 240 miles of roads are at risk, and many of those are on the Cape.

As the one in charge of maintaining Sandwich’s roads, Paul Tilton is actively trying to figure out how to prepare. “One thing that we’re doing, that a lot of towns are doing, is looking at resilient engineering or design,” he says.

That could mean raising roads anywhere between a foot and five feet, using different materials, building barriers, and significantly increasing the capacity for storm water drainage. But all of that is expensive, Tilton says.

“I would expect the cost of the roads would go up a third, when you’re incorporating some of these resilient design concepts.”

And they also have to think about things like, if they raise a road, what about all the driveways that connect to that road?

It’s a huge undertaking.

But Jennifer Jacobs, at UNH, says there is some good news.

“The good news about this is that the sea levels are not going to rise over night. So when we start seeing what’s going to happen 20 to 30 years out, we can get ahead of this.”

And Paul Tilton says that’s exactly what Sandwich is trying to do.

Samantha Fields is a reporting fellow with the GroundTruth project, stationed at WCAI.