Public weighs in on Cambridge’s climate change study

Public offers personal input for Cambridge climate change study

Originally published Feb. 4, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

What would you do if your house and car were submerged in half of a foot of standing water? Or if your power went out for 10 hours during a 10-day heat wave?

Both scenarios have public health and safety implications the city wants to learn more about as part of its climate change vulnerability study led by a committee of city staff, consulting group Kleinfelder and a city-appointed technical advisory committee. The community meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 29, offered a chance for residents to imagine ways in which extreme weather events would impact their daily lives.

Their responses will be helpful to the study, said the project’s manager, John Bolduc, a Cambridge Community Development Department (CDD) environmental planner. That’s because only the first part of the study is technical analysis, the second part is crafting a plan to mitigate anticipated impacts.

Bolduc said once the analysis is done, the city will have to prioritize recommendations based on the most critical needs.

“It’s important the community comes along with us in understanding what the vulnerabilities are, and what we have to be responsible in doing,” Bolduc said to a crowd of roughly 30-40 residents. “Residents will need to take their own actions, and if we’re all going to be asked to buy into a strong action, we have to feel good in our understanding of climate change.”

In groups of eight to 10, residents brainstormed the impacts of extreme heat and flooding for their families and homes. One resident, George Mokray, said the heat wouldn’t do much more than drive him to sleep on his porch, but he wondered what it might do to a neighbor’s child who has cerebral palsy.

“I have another neighbor with MS (multiple sclerosis), which is exacerbated by the heat,” Mokray said. “I wonder about that, too.”

Public Health Department director of environmental planning, Sam Lipson, said the city has very few cooling centers because the previous heat waves haven’t reached critical levels. He said climate change could increase temperatures over longer periods of time, degrading the air quality and increasing smog. Diseases could become more prevalent and harder to treat.

Several residents highlighted the need for neighborhood groups to have a system to check in on elderly residents. Others said there was a public safety risk because people tend to be more irritated in hot weather.

Still, many people in the room said they could tough it out for a few hot days and go half a day without power, but when it came to flooding, the risks seemed to magnify.

“The flood situation feels much more hopeless than 10 days of heat,” said Cambridge Housing Authority representative Tina Miller.

Lipson said he worried about the indoor air quality being jeopardized with mold that sticks around for weeks or months after the water clears, not to mention fecal or toxic matter in standing water. Miller added many people aren’t aware of the dangers of electrified water in basements where utilities are exposed.

Resident Brad Bellows pointed out a small nuclear reactor that MIT uses for research would be submerged in a Category 2 hurricane, the level of storm used in the brainstorming exercise. Others brought up the biolabs in Kendall Square and wondered what toxins might leak out into the open if not contained.

The technical analysis will be done before the end of the year, Bolduc said, and the following year will focus on preparedness plans. Lisa Dickson, vice president of sustainability at Kleinfelder, said they are currently working on assessing the impacts of extreme weather events like really hot or cold temperatures, heavy rain or snow falls, and rising sea levels by looking at projections along with the historic weather records and lessons learned from past events, like Hurricane Sandy.

The study is also taking a critical look at the city’s infrastructure, said Department of Public Works commissioner Owen O’Riordan. He said most of the city’s utility, transportation and telecommunications systems are regional in nature, adding another layer of complication to both the analysis and final recommendations.

For more information about the study, visit: cambridgema.gov/CDD/Projects/Climate/climatechangeresilianceandadaptation.aspx

To take a survey and give input to the research team, visit: surveymonkey.com/s/climateprep

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