Storm Flooding Hits Harwich Hard

by William F. Galvin
Vehicles seeking  to use North Road during Saturday's coastal storm found the road not passable as the Herring River once again breached its banks. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTOS
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HARWICH – A series of coastal storms last week raised water levels in the Herring River and havoc for residents along North Road.

The river on several occasions overflowed its banks, flooding the road preventing vehicles from passing for several hours.

Last Wednesday, North Road resident Andrea Silbert and her daughter were stranded for more than six hours while the river water flowed up and across the road in depths unsafe for vehicles. Silbert said her daughter could not attend jury duty because of the conditions, and Silbert could not leave to look in on her 88-year-old mother in Chatham.

On Saturday another coastal storm put sections of the town’s south coast under water.

“I suspect it was deep enough to float a car,” said North Road resident Craig Eldredge of Wednesday’s storm. He added that he couldn’t get through for two to three hours because of the flood waters, estimating the water covering the road was two-and-a-half feet deep.

“For me it was not a major inconvenience, but if anyone had an emergency, you wouldn’t be able to resolve it without a fire truck,” said Eldredge.

This is not the first time the road was submerged by waters from the Herring River; it’s happened at least three times in the past few weeks as strong coastal storms propelled by south winds well in excess of 50 miles per hour pushed ocean waters onto the Nantucket Sound shoreline.

During last Wednesday’s storm, the town closed Lothrop Avenue because of flooding in three locations, according to Department of Public Works Director Lincoln Hooper. His department was out pumping puddles on a number of town roads. There was also serious coastal erosion along Nantucket Sound due to the storms.

Silbert has been trying to get the town to address the flooding conditions for more than a year. There has been flooding at the intersection of North Road and Smith Street during heavy rains over the years, she said, and on Dec. 23, 2022 a storm surge caused the Herring River to break through to the road. The river flowed across the road to the wetland on the other side, and the road was not passable for several hours. She estimated the water was 18 inches deep, and she was forced to leave her car on the other side of the breach and wade through the floodwaters to get home.

At the time, Silbert reached out to Town Administrator Joseph Powers, but received no response. After multiple phone calls to Powers, she contacted then-select board member Mary Anderson.

“As you know I’ve been trying to get a response from Joe Powers for weeks in terms of the preparations they are taking, or more accurately, not even contemplating with respect to the fact that the Herring River broke through at the intersection of North Road and Smith Street on Dec. 23 and that now tidal flooding is a common occurrence,” Silbert wrote in an email to Anderson last March 2. “I’ve been calling Joe Powers for weeks with no avail.”

Silbert said Powers came to look at the intersection in March but never got back to her again. Powers and Hooper visited the location last Wednesday during the flooding.

“Joe came by yesterday in a truck with Linc Hooper and spoke with me,” Silbert wrote in an email last week. “He said it was up to the county to do something and that I should not call him again. I asked how we were supposed to get out and what should my daughter have done for jury duty, and how I could check in on my mom. He told me I should have called 911 to ask the police and fire department to help us get to our destinations. Verbatim that is what he suggested. He also called me ‘unhinged’ and said all I cared about was my road and that he had to go look at what was happening at the beaches. He was patronizing, rude, and dismissive.”

Eldredge said he grew up on North Road and his brother lives on Bell’s Neck Road, which was also flooded. The 73-year-old resident said the flooding conditions are relatively recent. The road needs to be raised and a larger culvert installed to let the water flow underneath, he said.

According to Eldredge, Hooper came through the neighborhood before a previous storm talking with residents about the flooding and recommending they might consider evacuating when coastal storms are approaching.

Hooper said there has been some flooding in the area for 20 to 30 years, but it is happening more frequently now. Hooper said he called for a DPW truck to drive through the flooded section last Wednesday to examine other parts of the road, and he estimated the depth of water on the road at one foot. There was a second area of flooding further north at the dirt section of the road, he added.

“Yes, there was more water than I’ve ever seen there before,” said Hooper. “There is something to be said for global warming.”

A similar storm surge occurred on Saturday driven by another coastal storm with high winds and an astronomical high tide. Beaches were hard hit and there was serious flooding in Saquatucket, Wychmere and Allen harbors. Several roads were not passable. North Road at Smith Street was under a couple of feet of water for several hours.

Hooper said during his public outreach to residents in the neighborhood, he told them there is no easy fix or solution. He told residents if there was an emergency they should call 911 and the town would respond. Hooper said he also told residents that the Cape Cod Commission is studying low-lying roads to examine vulnerable conditions in all 15 Cape towns. The study is looking at roads, bridges and culverts in areas where flooding is occurring due to sea level rise, storm surge, and erosion.

The project employs state-of-the-art modeling and community engagement to identify and prioritize low-lying roads to target for coastal resiliency action, according to the commission. The second phase of the study is underway, which includes Harwich. There are 14 roads identified on the priority list for Harwich. North Road at Smith Street is in the middle of the priority list. Three roads in each town will be chosen and recommendations made to make them more resilient to climate change. The study is expected to conclude by June. Hooper said he is expecting preliminary findings to be released in February. The town has asked that North Road be placed as a top priority on that list, he added.

“We’ll take the deliverables to the select board and ask if we are tackling this, and where is the money for it,” he said.

Hooper said he has run the North Road conditions by VHB, Inc, the town’s consulting road engineers, and has been told it will take a year-and-a-half to get permits and it will cost bout $1.2 million to raise the road in two locations.

“Our ancestors knew better than to build on the water,” Hooper said.