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Essex County, Massachusetts

Hurricanes

Photo: Electric trucks work throughout Methuen, Mass. neighborhoods impacted by heavy rain. (2006) Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA
Essex County, Massachusetts

Overview


Since 1972, Essex County, Massachusetts has declared 27 weather disasters. This large number of declarations can be attributed to three main geographic factors. First, Essex County has a long coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, making it susceptible to remnants of tropical storms and strong nor’easters. Second, the county lies on the lower Merrimack River valley where many rivers and tributaries are susceptible to flooding. And third, it’s in the Northeast United States, and unsurprisingly is prone to cold temperatures and heavy snow.

This dangerous combination of coastline, rivers, and snowmelt, subsequently results in frequent flooding across the county. Between 2001 and 2010, Essex was hit by six major floods. In 2001, widespread floods occurred throughout March as snow and then rain deluged the rivers. In 2005, the remnants of Hurricane Tammy caused floods that came up through western Massachusetts. In other years, the floods came from the coasts, bringing debris onto roads and causing severe beach erosion. The most infamous recent flood though was the Mother’s Day flood of 2006, when up to 12 inches of rain fell in a short time period, causing rivers and tributaries across the county to swell to record levels. As a result, many main roads were closed, including a major commuter route to Boston, and schools were shut down. The rain also brought additional fears that multiple dams could fail. Fortunately, only one dam failed, and the nearby residents were evacuated safely beforehand.

Essex County Severe Weather Timeline

Snowstorms also come in multiple forms in Essex, including inundation by heavy snow, ice that brings down power lines, and the most damaging: blizzards and nor’easters. During the 2013 blizzard, Essex County received up to 29 inches of snow and had hurricane-level winds. In nearby Boston (only 10 miles away) winds reached 76 mph during the storm. One town in Essex was suspected to have similar extreme wind levels, but conditions were so severe that at the height of the storm the wind sensors were lost and the exact wind speeds remain unverified. A storm even more severe than the blizzard of 2013, however, occurred in 1978, and continues to hold many of the state’s records for snow totals and coastal flooding. At the peak of the storm, visibility was near zero as 79 mph winds whipped snow through Boston and its surrounding areas. Essex, being a commuter area, was highly affected when the storm hit during evening rush hour, stranding 3,500 cars on the highway as commuters headed home from Boston. Essex also recorded immense snowfall totals. The coastal town of Rockport recorded 32.5 inches of snow. To make matters worse, the storm caused major coastal flooding all along the Essex coastline. By the end of the storm, 2,000 homes on the Massachusetts coast were destroyed or severely damaged by the floods.

Boston snowstorm
January 27, 2015: Nor'easter "Juno" brings heavy snowfall and blizzard conditions, closing roads and burying residents vehicles under feet of snow (Jaminbenji / Shutterstock.com)

Essex County is also affected by tropical storms and hurricanes. Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 have shown that hurricanes can cause incredible damage in the northeast region. In fact, Hurricane Irene caused the state of Massachusetts $34.7 million in damage from wind alone and another $24.13 million from inland flooding. Essex’s earliest FEMA declaration for a tropical storm dates back to 1985 when Hurricane Gloria made landfall in Milford, Connecticut and traveled northeast through Massachusetts and into Maine. And even when a tropical storm doesn’t make landfall, remnants can intersect with other weather patterns to bring additional rain and wind, exacerbating other severe weather in Essex.

Essex County, Massachusetts

Hurricanes

MEMA
Outside the headquarters of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (Sharon Burke / New America)

“We did an exercise several years ago where we had a firm go out and interview random citizens on the street and ask: At what point would you evacuate?” recalled Mike Russas, the chief of response and field services at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). “One guy said, ‘At a hurricane Cat-9.’”

To put this response into perspective, the categories of hurricanes are based on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which ranges from category 1 (74-95 mph winds) to category 5 (157 mph winds and above). The scale indicates that if a category 5 hurricane occurs, “catastrophic damage will occur,” and “most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.” So, the Massachusetts gentleman was telling the emergency management team that he would only evacuate if the hurricane were apocalyptic and literally off the scale.

Russas has seen in other studies, exercises, and his own personal experiences that this “Cat-9” guy is not alone in his sentiments, though he certainly is on the extreme side of the evacuation skepticism spectrum. Just last year, for example, MEMA worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a behavioral study, contacting hundreds of people across the state. The results were similar: People said they would be hesitant to evacuate. Russas explained one of his takeaways from the study: “I think there is an absolute difference in results from a behavioral perspective from states like Louisiana, who have been slammed, who have personally suffered through an event, versus a New Englander saying, ‘I’ve been through Hurricane Bob and I can suffer through it.’”

Essex Map
This map shows the possible storm surge inundation that could occur in Essex due to a hurricane. It shows worst case scenarios but does not include any riverline flooding that could be caused by the storm surge. (Created by FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

In short, the study showed a certain overconfidence in Massachusetts about severe weather. Part of this, we were told, has to do with local color in Massachusetts. Mikael Main, a Boston area native and regional manager at MEMA with responsibility for Essex County (and many other counties), explained the hardy culture: “It is just that mentality of the New Englander, the mind frame of being able to take care of yourself. We don’t need a lot of assistance from other people, we can do this ourselves, we are used to this stuff.”

Sometimes, this mentality can be beneficial to emergency preparedness, such as in a snow storm. Frequently, MEMA and their partners will open a shelter during a snowstorm, but few people come. Instead, affected people tend to rely on their social networks to get through the storm safely. Main explained, “People don’t want to stay in a shelter; they want to be in their own home. They want to be with their friends and family and take care of each other. With the warming centers, what we see a lot more of now, is people will come in, charge their phones, warm up, and then go home and sleep for the night.” In some ways, this mentality could be a sign of resilience—that snowstorms are something people in Massachusetts have dealt with and can bounce back from with little harm.

"There is an absolute difference in results from a behavioral perspective from states like Louisiana, who have been slammed, who have personally suffered through an event, versus a New Englander saying, ‘I’ve been through Hurricane Bob and I can suffer through it.’”

But the culture cuts both ways: The same stoicism that makes Massachusetts ready for snow storms may be making them more vulnerable to hurricanes.

Essex County, in particular, lies in a precarious location along the coast. It’s already prone to coastal and inland flooding (the main reason it made our cut as a severe weather hotspot), so a hurricane—and more importantly, its storm surge—could cause significant damage. Russas is well aware of this. “We have done emergency exercises where we took the Sandy track and had it travel literally 50 miles north and had it barrel into Boston with a major surge,” he explained. “And [Essex] gets totally inundated with water.”

The findings from that study are located in their state’s hazard mitigation plan, and shows detailed possibilities of what would be inundated by water if a category 1, 2, 3, or 4 hurricane hit Massachusetts. For example, in Essex County, a category 1 hurricane would affect 9 percent of the county’s total area, threaten 21,409 people, and wind damage would create 56,631 tons of brick and tree debris (an adult elephant weighs between 2 and 7 tons). A category 3 would affect 12.5 percent of the county, threaten 48,321 people, and create 143,560 tons of brick and tree debris. The situation is even worse in nearby Suffolk County, where Boston—with its large population and expensive infrastructure—sits on the edge of the water. Based on MEMA’s estimates, if Boston were hit by a category 4 hurricane, 269,737 people would be affected.

Now take this one step further: What if some of the population decides to not evacuate, or is reluctant to evacuate? Again, Russas is on top of this. “That absolutely plays a part in our preparedness and messaging,” he told us. “We know ‘okay they are really not going to want to leave their home because they think they can weather the storm.’ If we look at storm surge and we know that it will impact 97,000 people, that has an impact if we need to time those evacuations. If we know there is going to be some resistance or reluctance to evacuate; we need to back that in. If we know that they are going to wait until the last minute to get into their cars and move, we need to back that off into our planning factors.”

Flooded massachusetts
May 19, 2006: A baseball field in Lawrence, Mass. remains flooded after heavy rains in the area. (Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA)

MEMA is also attempting to better inform the public about evacuations through a campaign called Know Your Zone. The campaign publishes maps and preparedness information, which explains where the location of evacuation zones and advises residents in those zones to be prepared to evacuate in the event of a hurricane. This way, the public will already know if they live in a vulnerable area and hopefully this will mitigate against the natural reluctance. But, of course, a change in mentality takes time.

In the meantime, there is one factor that plays in Massachusetts favor: a good track record in recent emergency decisions made at the state level. “We are fortunate that our decision makers make good calls at certain times,” said David Woodbury, a MEMA coordinator in the mitigation unit. “The two that stick out in my head,” Woodbury continued, “are when the city shutdown following the Boston Marathon bombing, which was a real tough call, I remember being there when it was made, and then shortly after that we had a very intense blizzard and Governor Patrick shut down all the roadways. He took a lot of heat for it, but in the same blizzard, New York did not shut down and I-495 in Long Island was a disaster zone and got a lot of media coverage. So the people here thought, ‘Okay so maybe that wasn’t so bad of an idea.’”

The hope is that if another emergency were to happen, say a hurricane barreling towards Boston, and the state government had to make another tough call for mandatory or voluntary evacuations, the people of Massachusetts would listen, based on the trust the state has built with its citizens in recent years. And maybe, that trust will overpower the recalcitrant Massachusetts mentality and help people evacuate to safety. But just in case, the folks at MEMA are ready with a “stoic New Englander” discount factor.