Feneric (feneric) wrote in saugus,
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Saugus Flooding and Real Estate Development

It's been mentioned on Saugus.net, too, but if you're driving around Saugus or any of the surrounding towns today be careful. Many streets are flooded, and quite a few are outright closed. It's a good day to telecommute if you have the option (and it's a good time to broach the subject with your employer if you currently don't).

When I first tried to drive out this morning I discovered that the roads have actually gotten worse than they were yesterday. There's basically no safe way out of the Golden Hills area now for an ordinary car: both Bay State Road and Windsor Street have been completely blocked off by the City of Melrose, and Sweetwater Street has been half-heartedly closed by Saugus (it looks like it was intended to be fully closed off but someone moved the barricade). Howard Street at the intersection of Sweetwater has been reduced to one lane for two directions of traffic.

With a two-year-old in the house and not having any way to get milk over the wires, I donned my trusty swamp boots and set out for the nearest market; with the swamp boots I can comfortably walk through pretty deep water, so I was able to go directly through some of the flooded areas and directly measure the water depth and not have to risk the car.

What I found was that portions of Golden Hills Road were under 12 to 15 inches of water. In one spot the water was over 17" deep. The nearby flooded section of Howard Street was under a little less than foot of water. SUVs and vans can make it through without too much trouble, but with regular cars it's a bit more problematic; a car may or may not make it through on a given pass, and that's no guarantee that it'll make it through again on the return trip. Back in the '90s I personally had a car get stuck in such a situation after a storm that flooded Golden Hills Road and Bay State Avenue. The electronics had apparently gotten wet causing it to stall out. While I was able to push it far enough out to let it dry and eventually got it started again, it did have a funny odor about it for the rest of its days.

As I was walking back and forth to the store I was naturally thinking about not only that time I got stuck in a prior flood, but also the other times in recent history I've seen flooding conditions in Saugus.

It turns out that there have been a few just since the '90s. If one widens the scope a bit to include periods of massive snowfall, extended periods of rain / snow actually seem to be fairly common. Each time we get one of these events portions of the infrastructure in town fail, in spite of the fact that all real estate developers and engineers are supposed to be designing against a hundred year storm event.

I guarantee that numerous local real estate developers (and lawyers representing them, of course) will be referring to this as a hundred year storm. I served on the Saugus Planning Board for around seven years (I served not just my own term but an extended interim period to enable them to find a replacement for me) and during that time I heard developers label a few events as hundred year storms. Other real estate developments I've followed since that time have poorly weathered yet more hundred year storms. With some of those storm events I actually checked to see if meteorologists shared developers' opinions, knowing that it's in a developer's best interest to exaggerate weather events. What I found was that while most of them were really just twenty or fifty year events, some actually really were hundred (or hundred-plus) year events.

Now, to be fair, a hundred year storm event isn't something that's guaranteed to happen once every hundred years -- it's instead something that has a one percent chance of happening in any given year. It's possible that a hundred year storm event could happen every year ten years in a row, but the odds weigh against it.

As mentioned, I have observed a trend where certain parties unofficially "promote" storm events to hundred (or even hundred-plus) year levels, but this doesn't explain away everything. The recent plethora of hundred year storms strikes me as unlikely, and leaves me wondering if perhaps the tables comparing amount of precipitation to likelihood of occurrence are in need of adjustment. Some have even pointed to increased levels of rainfall in this area as being a sign of global warming.

Locally though we're left with another question: how come a hundred year storm (or even a twenty year storm) causes us so much trouble, especially in areas that have been recently developed? For this I can only see a few possible answers: either the discipline of civil engineering is flawed in some areas (and looking at some of their formulae from a mathematical perspective I find this very easy to believe); some developers are cheating the town by not really engineering against hundred year storm events (and since the town has only a part-time engineer on staff to check all developments, it isn't really possible to check them all thoroughly); or our existing core infrastructure has already reached its capacity.

Do you have any thoughts or ideas? Do you have any other explanations for why Saugus has been hit harder more frequently by weather in recent years? What do you think about civil engineering in general and local developments more specifically?

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