by Zoe Gentes | Aerial Photographs by John Supancic
In the wake of superstorm sandy, coastal communities in Rhode Island are struggling to figure out how to protect their residents and businesses from future storm damages and losses.
Illustration by Guy Billout
“Whether it’s a moon tide flooding a municipal parking lot several times each year, a nor’easter, or a ‘Superstorm’ Sandy, coastal flood conditions are at our doorstep in Rhode Island,” said Teresa Crean, Rhode Island Sea Grant/Coastal Resources Center extension specialist. “The country cannot afford to keep bailing out property owners when we know these events can happen. Sandy was a wakeup call.”
Rhode Island’s expected 3 to 5 feet of sea level rise by the year 2100, according to the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, is projected to increase flooding, damage property and infrastructure, contaminate fresh water, and displace coastal residents. These changes may affect nearly a million residents and thousands of businesses in the state’s 21 coastal communities.
New statewide flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were recently issued, and efforts have been made to make the public more aware of their implications. R.I. Statewide Planning funded a pilot project in North Kingstown to improve upon those maps, adding a greater level of detail in order to help towns make planning decisions incorporating sea level rise. Maps for North Kingstown show how select roads and properties, many of which are residential, will be affected by inundation.
“The maps and the project itself have been incredibly useful in assessing the town’s vulnerability to the impacts of sea level rise and climate change,” said Jon Reiner, former planning director for North Kingstown. “The town used this information to draft changes to its local comprehensive plan, [which] will lay out our development strategies for the next 20 years.”
The Wickford area is of particular interest due to its history of flooding. The new mapping of this area is helping town decision makers understand what is possible in terms of management and repairs for the future. For instance, one intersection was flooded by storm surge from Sandy. This intersection now needs to be repaved; the maps are helping the town determine whether it should be re-engineered first.
Another mapping effort, also funded by R.I. Statewide Planning, is taking a different route in Newport, focusing on the business and commercial community in the more tourism-based economy of the Newport waterfront. One vital sector is recreational boating; there are almost 1,000 moorings in Newport Harbor. A concern that affects this sector is the long-term structural stability of wharves and piers.
Crean has been asking waterfront business owners what their needs and concerns are regarding sea level rise, what information they need to make decisions, and what experts can be brought in to tailor strategies to property owners and businesses.
“Essentially, we want to know how the support services for the boating industry could be damaged, and what information, tools, and resources business owners need to better prepare for future storms and higher sea levels,” Crean said. Also important is finding out what decisions they have already made to manage their sites and prevent damage.
“We want them to share their ideas. We are looking for the heroes who are already adapting to sea level rise, and we hope to promote the success stories and best practices for the rest of the community,” she said.
Business owners on Bowen’s Wharf, for instance, have worked with property managers to replace flooring in their buildings with materials designed to be flooded and with low potential for damage and mold growth. The Newport Armory basement was recently redesigned with the outlets and utilities relocated to a level above flood stage, and a storm door installed to keep floodwater out.
Knowing that hurricanes and nor’easters are inevitable, some business owners have taken a different tact, rebuilding storm-damaged docks with lower- quality, less expensive materials. Their thinking, Crean said, is pragmatic: “We’re not going to over-invest in materials we know are just going to float away.”
Crean hopes that this project will help such businesses find a method for rebuilding docks in a way that will reduce waste and diminish the likelihood that their materials will end up as debris in the next storm.
Hopefully, she says, “A little more investment in the right solution now may save them money down the road in replacements.”
To aid in the effort, Crean said the project is bringing in experts from around the country to discuss practices that have worked elsewhere.
Crean said the project is intended to aid businesses, not to impose added burdens.
“We want the businesses to do well, to hire more workers, and to continue to provide a high level of service,” she said.
Newport hosted a community meeting, Engage Newport: SEA Aware, to explain the threat of flooding and sea level rise the city is likely to face. Teresa Crean, Rhode Island Sea Grant/Coastal Resources Center extension specialist, worked with the city to bring R.I. Emergency Management Agency, Save The Bay, the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, and representatives from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management to share information and participate in a public panel discussion.
Crean presented the detailed maps showing the vulnerability to flooding of each parcel in downtown Newport, as well as all of the area’s facilities and infrastructure — including everything from hospitals and RIPTA bus lines to storm drains and manhole covers. The maps also showed how far inland waters came during the height of the surge of the Hurricane of ’38.
After seeing the maps, one property owner said that she was concerned about her residential property value, and she would need to rethink her long-term plans for living there in the future.
“We don’t have clear solutions yet and we recognize that not every homeowner will have the financial resources to simply hire a contractor to elevate their entire property, so we need to keep working to bring a menu of options that homeowners, businesses and the local governments can pursue to improve the resiliency of these exposed areas,” Crean said.
“During these projects, we have enjoyed a strong collaboration between municipal government and state agencies, and we are providing the best available science from our researchers at the Graduate School of Oceanography” Crean added. “From these projects, a model process is being developed to enable the other communities to begin planning for coastal resilience.”
By 2016, it is expected that all 21 coastal municipalities will have updated their comprehensive plans to address natural hazards, including flooding from projected sea level rise and storm surge.