LIKE MANY OF THE WHARFS and neighborhoods that line Boston Harbor, Logan International Airport sits atop manmade land claimed from the sea. Since European settlers first arrived in the 1600s, various filling projects have expanded the city’s footprint by hundreds of acres and nearly all of that new land, including Logan, sits just above sea level. It’s one big storm away from disaster, according to computer modeling by MassPort, the independent public agency in charge of Logan Airport, two smaller airports in Massachusetts, and the Port of Boston.
According to MassPort’s models, if a Category 2 hurricane were to hit the city during the day’s highest tide—as what happened in New York during Hurricane Sandy—the surge would raise seawater almost 17 feet above sea level. A Category 3 hurricane under those conditions would raise sea levels almost 21 feet. In either scenario, portions of both the airport and the seaport would be drowned under feet of water, causing huge devastation and possible economic calamity to the region.
“If Sandy had hit Boston during high tide it would have been as bad if not worse as it was in New York,” said Robbin Peach, MassPort’s program manager for resiliency. “You can’t rely on luck to prevent a horrific event like Sandy.”
With that in mind, for about the last 18 months MassPort has been proactively planning for the next Sandy. In addition to creating Peach’s position about a year ago, the agency has developed an extensive risk management and business continuity plan, in part by using NFPA 1600, Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, as a guide. It has undertaken an extensive inventory of risks and critical systems of both Logan airport and the seaport, and developed an aggressive capital plan to harden its infrastructure to be able to withstand and recover quickly from a major disruption.
One of MassPort’s first moves was to assemble a resiliency task force comprised of various experts and stakeholders, such as facility managers, police, fire and safety people, technology experts, capital programs managers, and more. “The person that manages terminal thinks a lot differently about these problems than the person who manages the substations, and they think differently than the fire chief and police chief,” Robbin said.
“We looked at three threats: natural, manmade and technology threats,” she said. “Within each threat we looked at the likelihood of it occurring and what the potential consequences would be. We also looked at what assets would be most affected.”
MassPort identified a hurricane with storm surge as the most likely and most damaging event. So it went back 150 years to see how hurricanes had hit Boston historically, and factored in research suggesting storms are becoming more powerful and more frequent due climate change. With that information, MassPort designed its storm models to see how high sea levels would rise and what infrastructure would be most impacted in possible storm scenarios. Next, MassPort’s resiliency team used NFPA 1600 to help them identify which assets at the airport and seaport would need to be protected in a major storm.
“Some things we can sacrifice to water, but other things more critical,” Robbin said. “We divided everything into three categories: one, the assets that are absolutely needed, such as a space for military aircraft to land; two, the assets that are needed to recover ourselves, like critical substations; and three, the assets needed to get back to business as usual, such as the terminals.”
Not all infrastructure is critical or warrants significant investment to protect, Robbin said. Of the airport’s 17 substations, for instance, only four were deemed critical because of what they power, and the cascading consequences that could occur if they were shut down.
“I don’t care about the substation that feeds the vending machines,” Robbin said.
Making those kinds of assessments and prioritizing resources is key to building more resilient infrastructure, said Stephen Flynn, the cofounding director of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.
“If it is to be declared that resiliency should provide 100 percent continuity of critical functions for all risk, good luck with that,” said Flynn, whose Northeastern students helped on the MassPort project. “You can do a lot with 10 percent power if it is going to right places. You cannot safeguard 100 percent power all time, but you might be able to preserve enough to help you get to full function more quickly.”
Once the risks were known and key infrastructure identified, MassPort went to work figuring out how to protect it. The agency decided to retrofit existing critical infrastructure to be able to survive a category 2 hurricane during high tide, and to build new construction to be able to withstand a category 3 hurricane during high tide. A detailed plan was created for each critical system. Some plans included moving HVAC systems to higher ground, installing flood-proof doors, purchasing and deploying temporary flood-wall barriers, and making electrical components more waterproof, Robbin said. All told, MassPort has identified $37 million in improvements that will be made over the next five years. The MassPort board of directors has already approved the money and the agency is in the process of putting projects out to bid.
MassPort is also making improvements that require little to no investment, such as developing and updated operational flood plan.
“It’s not just about hardening our facilities, it’s remaining operational,” Peach said. “For example, we can take our expensive vehicles and move to the third and fourth floor of garage.
“I hate to say that we learned from the mistakes made in New Orleans and New York and New Jersey, because nobody was thinking about this during Katrina and Sandy,” she continued. “There had been a lot literature about mitigation, but people hadn’t been thinking about adaptation and what to do about it. Fortunately, Boston was not as hard hit, but we realize we need to get in a better position for when it is.”