For the past two months, the Department of Public Works has received the same forecast from WeatherWorks: moderate chance of localized flooding. Tuesday was no different, until it was. At 10:15 that morning, the town received an update indicating a microburst with high levels of precipitation and high winds until about 11:30. Within an hour, 2.3 inches of rain fell, causing flooding, blocking roads and wreaking havoc across town.
“We were not anticipating any more than we had any day throughout most of the summer based on the forecast we received,” said Carys Lustig, director of public works. “We probably would have pre-positioned staff earlier, lowered the level in Rosemary Lake. We usually put a communication out to residents to make sure the catch basins are clear.”
As soon as the alert was received, town departments mobilized. “It was kind of all hands on deck,” said police Deputy Chief Chris Baker. “That you don’t see often. We’ve had hurricanes, microbursts, but flooding I haven’t seen on that level in a long time.”
Michael Lethin, the town’s emergency management administrator, said this was one of their biggest emergencies in a while. He said he was pleased with the town’s quick response despite resources being stretched thin due to how widespread the flooding was. “There’s always going to be bumps, but I think the response was generally smooth.”
Assessing the damage
Phones at the DPW, the Public Safety building and the fire stations started ringing early in the day and continued well after the storm cleared. Many residents reported water in their basements, disabled vehicles, and other weather-related damage.
Resident Jill Kahn said this was the first time in her 33 years in her home that she’s ever had water in the basement. She was working from home on Tuesday when she noticed her backyard was under water. Later that day, when Kahn saw the water had disappeared, she became concerned.
“All the water had mysteriously disappeared,” she said. “I then opened the door to the basement and saw water on the stairs and a couple of inches of water in much of the basement.” Kahn and her daughter spent the evening cleaning up the mess.
During the height of the storm, the Community Council had water pouring into their thrift shop and food pantry. “It was coming in through the walls,” said Sandy Robinson. As soon as they realized things were getting serious, they put out a call for volunteers to come help. The response was immediate, and along with staff they were able to get everything off the floors and shovel water out through the doors. .
“We lost very little, which is kind of incredible,” Robinson said. “Yesterday at noon I didn’t think we were going to be able to distribute food tomorrow, but we did with no issue.”
Businesses also bore the brunt of the storm, many experiencing power outages and flooding as well. For Volante Farms, this was the final straw that pushed their field over the edge, losing any chance of a yield this summer.
“Everything in the main field is sick and saturated, as it has been the whole month,” said Steve Volante. “There’s nothing you can do to dry it out at this point.” The store also got some water, but staff were able to manage it.
Rosemary Pool, which abuts the lake, is often hit hard when high-water events occur. This one was no different. As the level quickly rose, water poured over the wall into the pool area.
Stacey Mulroy, director of park and recreation, said while the pool will need to be closed at least until the weekend, it’s not the worst she’s seen. “The last time there were fish in the family pool from the lake,” she said.
Remediation efforts for the pool require time and outside testing. After the weather clears, the pool is tested for bacteria, shocked with chemicals and vacuumed. Once complete, HUB Testing — the environmental testing firm with which the town contracts for the pool — will test the water to ensure it is safe for swimming.
Flooding at Rosemary is scheduled to be addressed in 2025 as part of a larger pool improvement project.
Why was this storm so different?
Over the past 10 years, localized weather events in Needham have become more common in comparison to the larger, nationwide events. “Hurricanes are usually our high water events,” said Lustig. These localized events are more challenging for the town, she explained, because they don’t meet requirements for FEMA aid.
Historically, the town had enough notice to plan and alert residents. With time, staff would inspect catch basins and sewage pumping stations to ensure pumps and motors worked and could handle the high water flow. Officials would coordinate road closures and determine how to best redirect traffic. The town would also begin notifying residents to check catch basins around their homes and to recommend they stay off the roads.
The already high water table was a big contributor to the significant effects of this storm. “The ground is more saturated,” said Lustig. She indicated that in July alone, the town had 12.31 inches of water.
Despite the short notice, town departments began putting systems in place including cordoning off flooded areas, redirecting traffic, aiding stranded vehicles, and responding to resident emergencies.
“We’re doing our part helping residents as they come in and referring people to contractors as the number of people calling exceeded our ability to provide assistance,” said Lustig. “We are telling people with sewage damage to file for insurance claims.”
Depending on the damage and where the water fell, the responsibility — and financial burden — to resolve the issue may fall on the town or on home or business owners.
Dennis Sullivan owns local property management firm Prestige Homecare and is also vice president of operations for United Restorations, a regional disaster response service. Both companies responded to numerous calls in Needham, and Sullivan described the damage as pretty intense. “It was a unique event.”
Asked whether owners can rely on insurance to cover the damages, Sullivan said it’s not guaranteed. “I’m not an insurance expert, but groundwater is not a pure and simple covered claim.”
The town manages brooks and culverts as part of the drainage system. If water comes onto a property from a brook or from the street, the town may be able to help. The town is also responsible for sewage backups that come from the main system. But if the topography of a property is such that when it rains it floods, responsibility lies with the homeowner.
Right now, Lustig explained, the top priority is remedying damages in the two town buildings that flooded: High Rock School, which has never had water before, and the Department of Public Works.
Systems at work
Concerns that the town was ill prepared or that infrastructure was deficient were voiced on social media. But Lustig said everything worked as it was supposed to. “Our systems are designed to accept a reasonable amount of weather,” she said. “This was an extraordinary event. We would need storm drains the size of a road [to handle Tuesday’s rainfall]. It would be hard to create the infrastructure to absorb that weather.”
The town uses the roads, as well as brooks and culverts, as part of the drainage system design, and they worked as they were supposed to, Lustig said.
She added that the fact that the majority of the water drained within an hour of the rain stopping was impressive. “Unfortunately it does take some time to move, and if you have a house that’s situated in the way, it’s more impactful.”
The town updated its social media accounts throughout Tuesday to keep the public informed.
On Friday, all departments involved in Tuesday’s event will meet. “We will be distilling our lessons learned from this incident across the town departments,” said Lethin, the emergency management administrator. “And as we look at climate change as a growing issue, being prepared for these no-notice or little-notice incidents is going to be more important going forward.”