Climate Crisis

East Bay Communities Search for Answers on How to Protect Properties from Sea-Level Rise and Flooding

Since sections of Warren, R.I., are low-lying, including the intersection of Market and Redmond streets, even minor storms can cause significant flooding. (Janet Freedman)

The future of Aquidneck Island may be underwater, and community leaders are asking how to protect the three-municipality island and the rest of Rhode Island’s East Bay from sea-level rise. The remnants of late-summer’s Hurricane Ida and other more frequent and severe storms are causing increased flooding in the nine low-lying communities on the east side of Narragansett Bay.

The Aquidneck Island Climate Caucus, a environmentally conscious community group founded by Reps. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, and Lauren Carson, D-Newport, hosted an Oct. 17 discussion with three experts working on climate-crisis issues. Sea-level rise is 2.6 inches above what it was in 1993, and continues to rise at one-eighth of an inch annually, according to the lawmakers.

Warren’s downtown, for instance, is less than 20 feet above sea level, and parts of the town already regularly experience nuisance flooding. Town officials have projected the impact of rising sea levels. They focused on the Market Street area, in the northern part of town and built on a floodplain.

“We’re not here to scare people,” Warren town planner Bob Rulli said. “These are realities.”

The town’s future looks wet. According to a recent analysis, by 2035 the Market Street area will see 356 properties flooded and 57 housing units lost with 86 displaced residents. The corner of Market Street and Redmond Street will flood daily. Costs to repair would be $8.1 million in today’s dollars. Tax revenue loss would be minimal, but Rulli is worried about regular flooding events impacting local insurance rates and local lending.

Town officials are also worried about the environmental pollution that may result from flooding. The intersection of Market and Redmond streets is home to an autobody shop, a furniture store, and a dry cleaners. If these or similar service-oriented businesses flood, the chemicals used on-site may be washed out with the tide. Warren is also home to Jamiel’s Park, a capped landfill.

Regular flooding also brings a risk of property abandonment — for example, 40 percent of property owners in the Market Street corridor are from out of town or out of state, indicating they are merely investment properties with little long-term interest in the area. Warren has a written obligation to remediate any abandoned properties.

One of the proposals Warren town officials have put together to address sea-level rise and flooding is a four-phase relocation and restoration plan that would take 50 years to fully implement. The plan would include buying out 58 properties in the Market Street area and converting the land back to the wetlands it was prior to development.

“We filled in this area and it was never meant to be filled in,” Rulli said.

Neal Hingorany, president of Portsmouth-based Narragansett Engineering Inc., noted coastal development and flood policy are drastically unprepared for the climate crisis. He said warming water temperatures have eroded the cold-water buffer in the Atlantic Ocean that protects or blunts against intense hurricanes rolling through the region.

“It’s likely the United States East Coast will experience unprecedented hurricane intensification in the near future,” Hingorany said.

Flood insurance is administered and subsidized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. While the federal agency has rolled out changes to its flood insurance rates, the program is still woefully underprepared for climate change, according to Hingorany. The program is insolvent, to the tune of $20 billion.

With the federal government heavily subsidizing flood insurance, Hingorany said there is no genuine disincentive for developers and homeowners to change risky behavior.

“The system needs to pay for itself,” he said. “Higher insurance rates would ensure less riskier building practices.”

On Aquidneck Island, historical structures are among the buildings at major risk. The Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) owns more than 70 properties across the island, and has been studying the issue for five years. Its latest survey of tenants found that 59 percent of all properties witnessed flooding in their neighborhood; 46 percent said they had water infiltration in their basement during flooding, and 10 percent of NRF tenants said they were in a situation during flooding where they could not evacuate due to roads being flooded. NRF estimates 22 of its properties are at risk of first-floor flooding.

“Water goes where there is space for it to go,” said Mark Thompson, NRF’s executive director. “All of us are going to have different experiences when it comes to sea-level rise.”

Risk mitigation assessments show NRF needs to elevate its properties, and get critical infrastructure, such as boilers and water heaters, out of basements. Properties could also turn their basements into cisterns, and the nonprofit has not ruled out selling properties too expensive to rehabilitate.

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