In March 2018, the east coast was hit by four separate nor’easters. Each storm came with its own set of challenges, but for the City of Quincy, MA, Winter Storm Riley left the biggest impact. From Friday, March 2 to Tuesday, March 6, the city experienced wide-spread flooding from three extreme high tide cycles and a storm surge higher and longer than the Blizzard of 1979—the unofficial king of all southern New England storms. 5,000 parcels lost power, residential roadways were washed out, seawall sections collapsed, and over 150 households had to be evacuated by the City’s Public Works Department and the National Guard. While Quincy was well prepared for the storm, its scale and duration were overwhelming. Thankfully there was no loss of life during the disaster, but when the tides finally receded, the city was left with damages in the tens of millions of dollars.
Quincy’s approach to communications during the event and their leadership immediately thereafter can be considered best practices to help communities think a little differently about how to respond to these devastating natural disasters.
How Quincy Prepared and Responded to Riley
Prior to the storm, the City of Quincy asked Woodard & Curran to join their storm preparations and emergency response planning team. We joined the Mayor of Quincy, the city’s department heads and private utilities to help implement their Emergency Response Plans; organize the deployment of police, fire, ambulances, and public works assets to the peninsulas; and create of a tide gate management sequence to align with the forecasted tides, which were unfortunately seasonally tides before the surge.
When the storm surge arrived on Friday morning all plans and precautions were in place—school had been canceled, recommended voluntary evacuations from certain neighborhoods were complete, three shelters were opened, tide gates and storm surge barriers in sea walls were ready, and all emergency response resources were in place. However, the heights of the initial surge overtopped seawalls and inundated neighborhoods. The tide never significantly receded for three high tide cycles, causing the city to remain inundated for 36 hours.
Throughout the event, the city used it’s Twitter account to post road closures and emergency contact numbers and the Mayor recorded and posted YouTube updates and held several press conferences to communicate to citizens trapped by the water. Public Works equipment and National Guard transports were used for evacuations, MBTA buses were used as warming stations for workers and citizens, two buses became mobile meeting rooms for coordinating emergency responder activities. Finally, early Sunday morning, the tide receded enough to access the peninsulas and many of the inundated neighborhoods.
After Storm Action Items and Assessment
At 6:00 AM on Sunday, the City’s DPW and a team of 16 engineers from Woodard & Curran and Tighe & Bond hits the streets of Quincy to assess the damages and catalog the areas in need of immediate debris removal, roadway repair, seawall reconstruction, and tide gate replacement. By noon, the assessment teams canvassed 30 miles of coastal roadways, sidewalks, and infrastructure, and about 15 miles of seawalls and then began to prioritize the plan for immediate response actions. The effort took 10 hours, but when the Governor arrived on Sunday at 4:00 PM with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), a compilation and prioritization of immediate response actions were in place.
A database of damages including GPS locations, photos, estimated debris removal costs, and forecasted near-term repair costs was completed by Monday afternoon. During this time, Quincy’s DPW had to keep pumps deployed in the neighborhood because destroyed tide gate and breached sea walls could not prevent the highest tides from leaking back into these areas. DPW has pumped out 130 basements and two public building were baled.
By 3:00 PM on Monday, an initial damage assessment calculated over $10M in undermined public infrastructure alone, and it was determined that $3M of that total was needed for immediate repairs and debris removal. The City was able to provide these estimates to FEMA, MEMA, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) while they were conducting their independent damage assessments in route to requesting a Presidential Disaster Declaration. At the Mayor’s request, the City Council approved $2.9M of emergency funding for roadway, sidewalk and seawall repairs that could not wait for a FEMA Disaster Declaration.
MEMA & FEMA’s Efforts
Quincy’s choice to conduct their disaster planning and recovery efforts in accordance with the framework outlined in FEMA’s Public Assistance policies allowed the city to be well prepared for their March 15th workshop where they presented the public and individual (private) assessments of damages with FEMA, MEMA, and the Small Business Administration (SBA). In total over $11.2M in initial public damages were assessed which meant that Quincy alone, triggered the cost threshold for Norfolk County to be considered for a Disaster Declaration. The recovery process continues and life for many will hopefully be back to normal soon.