by Mike Jarbeau, Narragansett Baykeeper
The Atlantic hurricane season came to an end as November rolled into December, and for many of us it brought a small sense of relief as the threat of tropical weather wound down. But for many, recovery from the storms that affected major portions of the United States will be measured in years and billions of dollars. As an officer in the Coast Guard Reserve, I was recently sent to one such place, Puerto Rico, where I spent two months assisting with response and recovery operations on the island.
The devastation in Puerto Rico was beyond anything I had imagined. As Hurricane Maria tore over the island, little was spared. Homes and other buildings were leveled. Transportation systems and the power grid were destroyed. Drinking water supplies, wastewater treatment facilities, and other key components of modern civilization simply ceased to exist.
Sound familiar? For many in Rhode Island, the answer is no. While the state has experienced significant storms in recent years, we haven’t been hit by a Category 3 or higher storm since Hurricane Carol in 1954. Carol destroyed thousands of homes and sent more than 14 feet of storm surge up Narragansett Bay into Providence. And only those most seasoned Rhode Islanders will remember the Hurricane of 1938, which killed hundreds, flooded much of the state, and altered the coastal and Bay ecology to such an extent that researchers are still sorting through the effects.
While it’s impossible to fully prepare for a major hurricane or emergency, we know they’re inevitable. And we need to do what we can to minimize the short- and long-term impacts. In Rhode Island, we are lucky to have many forward-thinking agencies and institutions looking at the state’s resiliency, or ability of our communities, infrastructure, and environment to recover from disasters. It’s not just storm threats – the Ocean State is changing. Sea level has risen 9.3 inches in Newport since 1930, and the trend is upward, with some estimates predicting another 9 feet of sea level rise by 2100. Narragansett Bay’s average water temperature has risen approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1960, and the Bay ecosystem is evolving due to natural and human stressors.
These environmental changes, along with the urbanization of Rhode Island since the 1938 storm, make it difficult to imagine the impact a major hurricane might have on the state. Hurricane models developed at URI have shown that a storm with some of the 1938 and 1954 characteristics could lead to significant flooding in downtown Providence despite the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. Such a storm would undoubtedly have extreme impacts on the Port of Providence’s exposed fuel terminals, scrap metal operations, and the Fields Point Wastewater Treatment Facility, all of which are located south of the barrier.
Resilience isn’t just a buzzword. In Rhode Island, we have the knowledge to begin taking positive steps toward improving the state’s ability to deal with changing environmental conditions and more intense storms. Resilience isn’t something you can develop after a disaster while wondering what to do with the remnants of destroyed homes, impassible roads, failed infrastructure, and environmental disasters. It will take serious planning and political will to make difficult decisions. In September, Governor Raimondo acknowledged the importance of adapting to changing environmental conditions in the state with an Executive Order outlining Rhode Island's Action Plan to Stand Up to Climate Change. The Executive Order directs the establishment of a statewide resiliency plan to help guide Rhode Island’s future resiliency efforts, but only time will tell if those efforts will move beyond paper and into meaningful action.