Weird Weather, Sea Level Rise Prompts Baltimore to Confront Climate Change


Ten years ago, Tropical Storm Isabel flooded Sandy Piskor’s Fells Point rowhouse, sweeping brown harbor water through the rooms, saturating first-floor furniture, ruining appliances.

Outside, firefighters in pontoon boats were rescuing neighbors, but there was no way to salvage all the possessions from their homes along the cobblestone streets of one of the city’s oldest blocks.

“We lost everything on our first floor,” Piskor, 56, said.

After the storm, Piskor spent weeks scrubbing her Aliceanna Street home with bleach to fight mold. And then she and her family moved right back in.

In Baltimore’s waterfront neighborhoods, flooding is so common that many residents view it as an inevitable nuisance. Some families who have lived along the water for generations have seen dozens of floods and storm surges and have chosen to stay. But recent changes in climate could test their resolve.

Sea levels are rising worldwide, and studies show they are rising two-to-three times faster in the Chesapeake Bay region than in most other parts of the world.

By the turn of the century, they could rise 2- to 5-feet, researchers say.

Baltimore neighborhoods would be inundated — along with the 11,700 to 13,000 houses and apartments constructed on those blocks, according to a Capital News Service analysis.

Some of Maryland’s most iconic places – Baltimore’s Fells Point and Harborplace, the historic fishing town of Crisfield, Ocean City’s boardwalk, the Dorchester County birthplace of Harriet Tubman — are at risk. The Port of Baltimore employs more than 14,000 people and indirectly generates another 100,000 jobs around the state. And the water is the focus of much of Baltimore’s tourism.

“The waterfront has always been the harbor for the Baltimore economy from the very beginning when people first settled here, and it has continued to be the centerpiece of our economy,” said Laurie Schwartz, president of Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, Inc.

But waterfront businesses and communities on the bay face serious risks in exchange for their prized location.

In 2003, the storm surge produced by Isabel caused $410 million worth of damage in Maryland, a National Weather Service report said. On Key Highway, the Baltimore Museum of Industry alone had $1 million in storm damage, as 5 feet of sewage flooded exhibits and the building’s heating and air conditioning systems.

Sea level rise isn’t the only effect of climate change that Baltimore will confront.

Besides storms, scientists say, rising temperatures will cause a huge strain on the city, particularly where there is little green space to relieve the heat.

Urban heat islands — large areas of pavement absorbing heat — will affect Baltimore in a variety of ways, from more infectious diseases carried by mosquitoes to more strains on utilities that power air conditioning.

“There is absolutely no doubt that climate change is increasing temperatures…. It will put stress on the electrical grid system,” said Beth Strommen, director of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.

From Hurricane Irene in 2011 to the swift derecho that left thousands without power last summer, severe and damaging storms create problems for governments.

And dealing with the problems climate change brings will cost money. Baltimore already struggles with poverty, crime, and strained city budgets.

Yet many residents may not understand that they should be preparing for climate change, said Eric Hohman, assistant Maryland state climatologist.

“It’s such a slow change that people don’t realize it until it’s too late. It’s economically necessary to start doing things now… so that you protect your future,” he said.

Some Baltimore government agencies have begun to consider climate change. The Office of Sustainability was formed, within the planning department, to promote conservation.

But five years ago, the Maryland Commission on Climate Change issued a report urging cities and counties to “take specific action now.” So far, just four counties and the city of Annapolis have taken advantage of a federally funded state program to develop plans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires cities to update their emergency plan every five years, the Baltimore Office of Sustainability website says. City officials use the plan to try to protect residents from natural disasters and other community threats, FEMA’s website says. This year, Baltimore will incorporate climate change into the plan.

Last winter, Baltimore’s planning department created the Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project, or DP3, a committee of more than 30 community leaders, business executives and government representatives who are planning the city’s approach to climate change.

It immediately faced delays The first meeting was rescheduled because of the traffic caused by the Ravens Superbowl victory parade. And the first public hearing, set for March, wasn’t held until the end of April.

The group says it will provide specific recommendations for dealing with climate change this fall.

“Baltimore is not going to retreat from the waterfront, but we have to acknowledge the change,” said Ken Hranicky, floodplain manager and city planner for the Baltimore Department of Planning.

Baltimore City Councilman James Kraft acknowledged that, while the city has made some progress, it needs to do more. Kraft introduced the legislation that created the city’s sustainability office.

“We’ve been working on these things but could act more aggressively than we are,” Kraft said. “Nationally, we don’t have the courage or political will to make these changes, but here at the local level we can do it.”

But addressing the issues of climate change and sea level rise is complicated. The challenges, from educating the public to implementing the DP3 committee’s recommendations, are myriad, said Kristin Baja, who is managing the project.

“People think of climate change as a global element that they can’t control at this level,” she said.

Dr. Cindy Parker of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a member of DP3, thinks the reluctance of response may be partly psychological.

“It has to do with how our brains are wired to perceive risk,” she said. “It’s really hard to commit money to things we can’t see or are threatened by.”

Part of DP3’s goal is to find ways to make sea-level rise a concrete issue for Baltimore residents, she said.

“If we’re talking about 2100, it seems so far and advanced for people,” she said.

“Talking about issues in ways that are relevant to people makes them seem more tangible.”

While the DP3 committee plans, and scientists continue to study the effects of climate change, Sandy Piskor and other Baltimoreans who live on the waterfront know they have to be ready for the next big storm.

“We’re faithful sandbaggers. Like when Superstorm Sandy came, we had our bags,” she said.

“That’s just the chance we’re willing to take.”

Capital News Service reporters Tyler Weyant and Natalie Kornicks also contributed to this article.

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Weird Weather, Sea Level Rise Prompts Baltimore to Confront Climate Change

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