Logan Int'l Heeds Warnings & Prepares for Potential Flooding

Victoria Soukup
Published in: 

The last few times Boston got clobbered by a hurricane, damage was mitigated because the associated storm surge struck the coast at low tide. But when Hurricane Sandy's powerful surge pounded New York and New Jersey in 2012, officials at Boston's Logan International Airport (BOS) realized they might not always be so lucky. As then-mayor Thomas Menino pointed out, Sandy missed high tide in Boston by just five hours. 

Massport, the authority that governs the state's public airports and seaports, was inspired to take action. Subsequent analysis identified flooding from another major weather event like Sandy as the most serious risk facing Boston's primary airport; and Massport consequently set aside $9 million to help BOS prepare for potential future flooding. The funds are to be spent over the next five years and focused on systems to help BOS prevent and recover from serious flooding. 

Massport CEO Thomas Glynn puts the $9 million "resiliency budget" in perspective by noting that it will cost less than 1% of the airport's annual budget over each of the next five years. He further notes that the airport's board of directors is on board with the investments. "When Hurricane Sandy struck, we saw what New York and New Jersey went through," Glynn explains. "We wanted to be certain we were prepared because, in general, Boston has worse weather than New York or New Jersey."  


Project: Resiliency Upgrades
Location: Logan Int'l Airport (Boston)
Primary Goals: Protect airport from high water due to weather-related flooding & rising sea level 
Strategy: Identify & prioritize key assets to protect during & after serious flooding 
Disaster & Infrastructure Resiliency Plan: $500,000
Consultant:  Kleinfelder
Flood Elevation Model Program: SLOSH (Sea, Lake & Overland Surges from Hurricanes) 
Source: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Admin.
Airport Funds Earmarked for Resiliency Upgrades: $9 million over next 5 yrs 
Sustainability Management Plan: $1 million
Funding: 75% FAA; 25% Massport
Consultant: Vanasse Hangen Brustlin

BOS also sits on Boston Harbor, surrounded by water on three sides, which further magnifies its risk for serious damage from flooding. 

"Massport is trying to be proactive and ahead of the curve," explains Robbin Peach, manager of the authority's formal resiliency program. "We had a wakeup call after Sandy. We can't continue to plan on good luck that future storms will hit at low tide. It's much more economically viable to prevent a problem than try to repair it."

Threat Assessment & Response

Two major reports, completed by two separate consultants in the past year, are helping guide Massport's efforts: a Disaster and Infrastructure Resiliency Plan (DIRP) by Kleinfelder and a Sustainability Management Plan by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin.  

The DIRP study, which cost about $500,000 and was completed in October, focuses on the airport's resiliency - its ability to endure flooding due to storm surges and climate change. The Sustainability Management Plan addresses six primary ecological and operational issues: climate change, air quality, noise, water quality, passenger experience and community/social issues. It cost roughly $1 million and qualified for 75% funding from the FAA.

Massport also used THIRA, an emergency preparedness model from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, during its strategic planning. The THIRA review focused on three types of disasters: natural (earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and hurricanes); technological (data loss) and manmade (sabotage and terrorism). For BOS, hurricanes and floods were deemed the most likely and damaging risk, notes Peach.

Massport had already hired Kleinfelder for disaster and resiliency planning after Boston's close call with Superstorm Sandy. The THIRA process then added in-depth analysis on an asset-specific basis. Officials focused on critical functionality, employee safety, equipment cost and communications when prioritizing a list of key assets that need to be protected during a disaster, Peach details.

Kleinfelder's resiliency plan emphasized understanding climate risks based on potential storm surges and climate change, explains Lisa C. Dickson, the company's vice president of sustainability. 

"We identified the critical assets that Massport needed for both barebones and partial functionality," Dickson explains. "We took climate change impacts and overlaid them with critical assets and determined the key vulnerabilities throughout the airport with emphasis on sea level rise and storm surge." 

Using advanced modeling from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), consultants designed flood elevation specifications to protect existing infrastructure from a Category 2 hurricane hitting at Mean High Water. They also designed similar specifications to protect new construction from the direct hit of a Category 3 hurricane at Mean High Water. Ironically, the modeling program is referred to as SLOSH, short for Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes. 

"The SLOSH model was based on a perfect storm," says Dickson. "If everything lined up, what would be the maximum flooding extent?"  

Massport also uses a probability model called ADCIRC to inform its decision-making, adds Peach.

BOS' response strategy is divided into three categories: 

• ensuring there is a place to land military and emergency aircraft; 

• resuming and recovering basic operations; and 

• returning assets to business as usual. 

The structure will help airport officials triage their responses and ensure that their primary focus is on restoring critical operational needs, explains Peach. "In a major weather event or sea level rise, we won't be worried about getting the terminals back up and running within the first two hours," she elaborates. "But we would be interested in making sure the navigational aids and substations that provide critical electricity are up and running."

Glynn acknowledges the responsibilities that BOS bears as an emergency facility. "Getting the airport open - or keeping it open - is a very high priority in emergency preparedness," he remarks. "If there is an event like Hurricane Sandy, you want to bring in the Red Cross and the National Guard. They're going to want to fly in."

Bricks & Mortar

Massport's $9 million flooding prevention and recovery budget is earmarked for capital improvements over the next five years. Initial resiliency projects include installing temporary flood barriers, watertight doors and waterproof fencing to protect the highest priority critical assets. After permanent barriers have been designed and installed, crews will transfer the temporary barriers to protect assets categorized at the next level of priority. 

Although a technology disaster was deemed less likely than a natural disaster, officials realize a major data loss would hit the airport hard. Some of BOS' information storage systems have consequently been co-located offsite - meaning that data remains onsite but is also backed up elsewhere. 

The Sustainability Management Plan from Vanasse Hangen Brustlin is designed to continue to assist the airport as it makes facility, airfield and roadway improvements in coming years. "As new projects move forward, airport officials can think about how buildings and facilities need to be designed so they are more resilient - such as putting critical infrastructures on a roof," explains Carol A. Lurie, senior planner/principal with the firm. 

Not everything can be "flood-proofed," she advises. "Some facilities, such as the airfield, are going to flood. But when the floodwaters recede, what condition will everything be in? The key is to understand what can be protected and what can't be protected, and making decisions where the best investments need to go." 

Kleinfelder's DIRP study assisted the process by rendering the uncertainty of weather into literal design applications - something that is still quite nuanced in the engineering industry, notes Dickson. "We actually translated what the 'new normal' may look like with respect to design and planning consideration," she explains. "The tricky part is reinventing how we approach design with the recognition that we don't have a database of hundreds of years to pull from."

A "10-year storm" in 2030 is likely to be very different from previous superstorms due to climate change, she notes. "We were able to work as an interdisciplinary team and translate that science into engineering design criteria that incorporated climate change," Dickson says.

Ensuring business continuity played a major role in all aspects of DIRP. "There is as much emphasis on what we can do to avoid impacts as there is on rapid recovery," she comments. "And that was the philosophy that guided the study."

Resiliency & Sustainability 

Components of Massport's Sustainability Management Plan include specific goals for greenhouse gas reduction, decreasing energy consumption, water conservation and noise abatement. BOS' current comprehensive energy-efficiency program, rooftop solar panel installations and several facilities designed and constructed to U.S. Green Building Council standards demonstrate previous performance in such areas. 

Lurie applauds BOS officials for taking action on its resiliency initiatives: "This is among the first studies where an airport has actually set aside a budget to plan proactively for resiliency, where there is a capital improvement program around resiliency that is integrated into all future considerations." She also appreciates Massport's strategy to collaborate with research entities and other transportation and public entities.

Peach notes that many airports tend to assign responsibility for resiliency issues to different departments; but BOS takes a more focused, centralized approach. "We don't know of any other airport in the nation that has been this progressive in actually appointing a full-time person to deal with resiliency," she says. "While resiliency is different from sustainability, you can't really be sustainable without being resilient. And there's a real agreement among the airport leadership that we're on the right track."

Those who question the need for weather-related resiliency planning or doubt the potential effects of climate instability don't need to rewind very far to recall Boston's punishing 2014-2015 winter. The record-breaking 110 inches of snow that fell - more than twice the city's usual average - reinforces the need for Massport to have a solid resiliency strategy, says Glynn. 

"It wouldn't surprise us if in the next 15 years we experience a significant hurricane," he remarks.

If/when another "big one" occurs, recent changes have surely made BOS better prepared to deal with Sandy's successor. 


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