Charles River Y parking lot on Chestnut Street / Credit: Charles River Y

The water from last week’s storm receded as quickly as it poured in. When the sun emerged that Tuesday, many residents were fortunate to discover minimal damage. For residents and businesses significantly affected by flooding, however, the aftermath has been devastating, and many homeowners are discovering they will have to foot the bill for remediation and repairs. 

In response to residents’ appeals, the town declared a state of emergency on Friday. 

State Rep. Denise Garlick said she began getting emails from her constituents within 24 hours of the storm. In Needham, the financial damage has been up to six figures for some, she said, but it wasn’t consistent across town. On Friday, she met with leaders from other impacted communities and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll to hear their stories and determine the best course of action. 

“We’re in a 30-day window of gathering data to make an appeal to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to get help,” said Garlick. “Needham’s decision [to declare a state of emergency] was in direct response to many residents being denied homeowners insurance.” Different policies have language that benefits residents in the case of a state of emergency. “The town wanted to put in the hands of its residents the tools that would be helpful.” 

In addition to attending Friday’s meeting, Garlick has been in touch with U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss, the Massachusetts House speaker and the legislature’s Committee on Ways and Means to advocate for aid in the event that any state money is available. She said the state will need its congressional delegation to make the case for FEMA and its state counterpart, MEMA. 

“We need to have Aug. 8 seen as a whole entity,” said Garlick. “The disease is what we saw on Aug. 8, and the symptoms are what happened in Needham, in Natick, in North Andover.” 

“I have open and active channels of communication with the governor’s office, State Rep. Garlick, constituents, and Needham town officials,” Auchincloss wrote in a statement to the Observer. “I will continue to monitor the situation and work closely with officials to make sure Needham residents are getting the assistance they need.” 

Garlick urges residents to take and keep pictures of the damage, to keep receipts for all costs incurred, and to get in writing any denial for insurance. “Most important,” she said, “Go to the town website SeeClickFix.

Residents share concerns 

Rachel Nissi, whose finished basement on Chestnut Street was left with 6 feet of standing water, has been helping residents advocate for aid. Using social media to reach out, she said she’s gathered a list of families who suffered damages from the storm. She said she’s been disappointed with the town’s response and what she perceives as a lack of adequate communication before and after the event. 

Some residents had several feet of water in their basements

“In a time of crisis, people don’t have time to read social media,” said Nissi. “There has to be a better way of outreach. They could have knocked on doors, volunteers could have done this.” And while she said SeeClickFix works for her, there may be many residents who are struggling to use the system, but who may need the service. 

Nissi believes the town could have shared information with residents in known problem areas to alert them to the fact that in a large water event, they might sustain some type of damage. “They could have alerted residents about the high water table,” she said. “I would like to have known I was buying a house in that [flood] area. I would have bought flood insurance. I think we need to take a hard look at how we’re going to do our best not to let this happen again.” 

Nissi and her husband attended Tuesday’s Select Board meeting to share their story and voice their concerns. Finance Committee member Josh Levy also addressed the board to ask why, since a stormwater master plan was developed in 2002, the new master plan published in June has only two of the 11 identified problem areas remediated. He said the plan also doesn’t account for areas that have emerged as concerns in the past 21 years, or the strain large, multi-unit residences may put on the town’s drainage systems. 

“I would encourage the Select Board to be more proactive in addressing known problem areas,” said Levy. “For the Housing Needham initiative, this needs to be thought of as a limiting factor. We need to fix the drainage problem before or alongside any building that we do for the Needham housing initiative.”

The town’s response

According to Carys Lustig, director of the department of public works, the town has been in the process of triaging damage. After ensuring the sewer systems were safe and emergency vehicles could get where they needed to go, the priority has been remediating any sewage issues in homes and on residents’ properties, followed by helping residents who had standing water in their homes, and then those who had standing water on private property and yards. 

On Friday, leaders of the various town departments met to assess the response. A clear gap emerged in cross-departmental communication because of how suddenly the event occurred.

“Typically if you know a storm is coming, they add dispatchers for the help lines,” said Michael Lethin, the town’s emergency management administrator. On Aug. 8, the lines filled up quickly, and the responses were siloed. “Ways to integrate the dispatching across the town departments is the primary lesson learned.” 

Flooding behind Highland Avenue Dunkin’ / Credit: Megan Pesce

On Tuesday evening, Lustig gave a report to the Select Board in which she outlined the unusual nature of the storm, the suddenness with which it hit, and the town’s immediate and subsequent response. She also discussed the town’s drainage system and the larger master plan for remediating problem areas. 

Lustig explained that in 2013, when several inches of rain in a two-hour period caused flooding, the DPW mapped out areas that had damage and created a plan to increase storm drain capacity. She said they started with “low hanging fruit” like adding catch basins and double catch basins and building up berms and curbs to protect private property. 

“We also started implementing a fairly aggressive capital plan, and over the past 10 years DPW has spent $11 million investing in the storm drain system,” she told the Select Board. “But to put it in a context, the price for replacing and expanding a storm drain is about $1,000 per foot.” 

Lustig told the Observer there needs to be a broader conversation about sustainability of garages and basements as finished spaces given the unpredictability and likelihood that these events will keep happening. At Tuesday’s meeting, she indicated that although to some extent the town has been assessing how drainage works on individual properties, especially when it comes to development, there isn’t a formal legal code that talks about an individual property and its propensity to flood. 

“A lot of the properties where we do find flood, they have garage unders, they’re developed in areas that have a high water table,” said Lustig. “And it’s unfortunate because the homeowner doesn’t necessarily have that context or that information when they acquire their property.” 

Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley suggested telling homebuyers the likelihood of their home flooding should be similar to a radon disclosure. 

Lustig told the Observer that the town is conducting its initial damage assessment and will be meeting with homeowners to provide help and offer recommendations for what they can do to protect their properties going forward. They will again be mapping out the town to assess clusters where the damage occurred. 

Going forward

A finished basement is destroyed by flooding

Both Lustig and Lethin stressed that these events are becoming more common, and the definition of a 25-year storm will need to change, as will the town’s response systems. A priority for the DPW is to standardize a method of communication and reporting structure for their response to these types of weather events. 

“We have a very robust snow ops book — a 4-inch binder with 200 maps of the town, the routes of all the areas we deploy in all types of snow and winter events,” said Lustig. “We’re developing that type of book for quick-flooding events.” They also plan to create a better website to help residents during these storms. 

“I’m hoping [for] a sustainability manager, not just to be less carbon dependent, but to plan appropriately for this type of event,” she said. She added that recognizing the impact climate change is having on these types of weather patterns will likely mean the department will accelerate its stormwater master plan. 

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