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Nashua Readies for Climate Change, Heat Waves and Floods

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Even if countries cut greenhouse gas emissions immediately, New Hampshire will get warmer and wetter within the next three decades, and towns need to plan accordingly.

That was the topic of Nashua's first Resilient Nashua Summit, which the city hosted Tuesday as part of a year-long initative to gather input on its plan for dealing with natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires towns to submit hazard mitigation plans every five years, but Justin Kates, director of Emergency Management in Nashua, says this process typically happens behind closed doors. 

"We're getting the citizens involved, the businesses involved, the non-profits involved, because we want to know what they think regarding resilience building in the community," Kates says.

Through community meetings and a partnership with the app Courbanize, the city mapped risks and resources to incorporate into the plan, which it is submitting later this month.

Kates says one of the major issues that emerged was the need for air conditioning. 

"New England doesn't think of air conditioning as a neccessity in homes," he says. "As we see these heat waves, people are having more trips to the hospitals, to the emergency rooms, and we’re seeing more impacts to our energy systems as well."

Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR
A climate assessment from UNH predicts 30-40 days above 90 degrees in N.H. by 2100.

Liz Fitzgerald, director of community impact for the Greater Nashua United Way, has been one of the community members providing input this fall.

During the lunch break, she reads a poster about rising temperatures in New Hampshire, based on data from the UNH Sustainability Institute.

It predicts 13 days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 17 fewer days below 32 degrees by 2050. Without a drastic reduction in emissions, it predicts 32 days above 90 by 2100, putting the state in a perpetual series of heat waves. 

Below the statistics, participants have written what concerns them the most about rising temperatures.

One says: "Impact on low-income residents."

Fitzgerald agrees.

She says United Way provides emergency aid to low-income and homeless families who are often hit the hardest by heat waves and flooding, and it has seen this demand increase over the last few years.

"When we think about climate change, [service providers] really need to be at the table," she says "Even though we're not scientists or city planners, we really need to know how people are going to be impacted."

Fitzerald hopes the increasing focus on the intersection of sustainability and emergency management could yield innovations that target low-income families. 

"We spend a lot of money on fuel assistance," she says. "What's the math around helping remediate homes to be more fuel-efficient and less dependent on fossil fuels, and will that make a savings for us in the long run?"

Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR
Cameron Wake says N.H. is regularly asking for $20-30 million from FEMA after floods, but that doesn't begin to cover all costs of repair.

Rhett Lamb, the assistant city manageer and community development manager for Keene, has also seen the disproportionate impact of heat waves on low-income and senior citizens, but his biggest concern is flooding. 

"Most of the inland communities are going to face precipitation events that are bigger than what their storms systems are able to handle," he says.

Residents in eastern Keene already face flooding that ruins heating and utility systems in their basement.

The city is looking at grant funding to help them with home modifications, as well as stormwater diversion and bridge rebuilding that will lessen stressors on the nearby watershed.

But all these improvements cost money.

Over the last decade, Nashua has invested in stormwater treatment systems that have reduced runoff into rivers by 80 percent, but officials estimate it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars for continued upgrades to its century-old infrastructure.

Cameron Wake, a professor of climatology and glaciology at UNH's Sustainability Institute, echoes these concerns about flooding.

He says 75 percent of New Hampshire's requests for disaster aid from the federal government is already for issues associated with flooding, which becomes more severe every year.

Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR
Cameron Wake says climate scientists "Aren't alarmists. If anything we underestimate the risk because we want to remain credible.”

But Wake sees opportunity for cities like Nashua. As rising sea levels threaten Boston and cities on the Seacost, he says Nashua and other inland cities could be poised to become centers of economic growth and environmental innovation.

He urged Nashua and the rest of New Hampshire to "act really quickly" to develop energy plans that rely less on fossil fuels and more on solar and wind energy, and he told summit participants that despite the inevitability of a hotter, wetter climate, a major reduction in U.S. emissions now could still make climate change this century more manageable.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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