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An impending climate reality: Rising coastlines, inevitable housing relocation

Climate change, flooding threaten vulnerable communities in RI

This article is part of a series on gentrification and development in Providence.

The Ocean State is sinking.

According to the January Rhode Island State Climate Summary, the northeastern United States is experiencing a faster rate of sea level rise than the global average. Even in the more conservative intermediate emissions projection, sea levels are expected to rise four feet by 2100, which would necessitate the abandonment of areas such as Barrington, Central Falls and the Port of Providence, The Herald previously reported.

Adapting current infrastructure to climate change has become central to state climate plans such as the 2019 Climate Justice Plan. But with time, the window of opportunity to meaningfully confront climate change has narrowed. In a state like Rhode Island, the dangers of rebuilding, the threats of climate gentrification and the challenges of relocation are worsened by the current housing crisis.

The Herald spoke to a variety of experts to understand the intricacies of Rhode Island’s coastal history, how climate change will impact its spatial configuration and the possibilities of hope in what might seem a grim future.

Coastal history: Tragedy, policy and reckoning

In late September 1938, the Great New England Hurricane pummeled Rhode Island. Prior to the hurricane, a generation went by without a major severe weather event, prompting a consensus that a hurricane along the coast was impossible. But according to Kara Schlichting, associate professor of history at Queens College in New York, “the storm of ’38 (proved) them wrong.”

The state failed to prepare and in turn sustained devastating damage — the waters of the Narragansett Bay rolled through the streets of downtown Providence. “The ocean-fronting counties particularly Tallanstown and Napatree Beach are just completely destroyed,” said Schlichting, who studies intersections of urban and environmental history in America. “They had been full of big Victorian homes, hotels. … They are erased from the shore.”

Under 20 years later, in 1954, three hurricanes hit the Rhode Island shore in a span of several months, in August, September and October.

“At this point, the ’38 hurricane is not a one-off. It is proof that, alongside the ’54 storms, New England hurricanes exist and are deadly,” Schlichting said.

The 20th century hurricanes represented, according to Schlichting, a complete change in the state's relationship with the coast. In 1938, Congress began to more extensively authorize and fund scientific research on hurricanes and community vulnerability. Those efforts led to the constructions of hurricane and flood barriers, such as the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, which promoted the idea that hurricanes and flooding “could be managed, no matter the scale of engineering required,” Schlichting wrote in a 2021 journal article.

While 20th century efforts were fundamental to ameliorating coastal risk in the state, it also set into motion a tradition that prioritized private properties and the act of rebuilding, Schlichting added.

Elizabeth Fussell, professor of population studies and environment and society, noted that places along the hurricane coast of the country “are adapted to historic weather regimes, but not the weather of the future,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.

Schlichting echoed Fussell's analysis when discussing the positioning and efficiency of Rhode Island's infrastructure. The storm protections currently in place, she explained, were built for lower water levels than the ones projected by climate change research. This means that future weather events are likely to breach state defenses, she said.

In 1954, “500 acres of downtown Providence” flooded, she said. “It's unlikely that barriers like the Fox Point barrier will successfully check the coming storm surges of future hurricanes.”

Schlichting noted that the shortcomings of infrastructure can impact essential urban systems. In Newport, Schlichting said, the city's water reservoir is located behind Easton Beach. “Where will Aquidneck Island get its water when what is now a reservoir becomes part of the salt marshes as water rises?” she asked.

The impact sea level rise will have on state infrastructure ultimately will prompt mass relocation, according to Schlichting. “The key infrastructure, I think that is what is going to force us to think about moving,” she said.

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And the reality of displacement is tied to how the state and federal government approach private properties along the coast, Schlichting said.

According to Schlichting, the American tradition of protecting personal property rights and economic interests has led to efforts and programs of constant rebuilding. “I realized that concerns about vulnerability and attempts to mitigate against hurricane exposure always, at least since the early 20th century, have butted up against the desire to be on a beach, on an individual level,” she said, adding that the real estate industry has also clashed with attempts to address vulnerability to weather events.

The National Flood Insurance Program was created in 1968 in part “to provide access to primary flood insurance, thereby allowing for the transfer of some of the financial risk from property owners to the federal government,” according to a Congressional Research Service report. But Schlichting argues NFIP not only fails to protect from flooding, it “actually encourages coastal development.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the division responsible for administering the NFIP, faces pressure from the real estate industry. According to Schlichting, the real estate industry lobbies FEMA to not update evaluations of vulnerable zones and preserve coverage of new coastal construction.

At the state level, the Rhode Island Coastal Resource Management Council is responsible for “the preservation, protection, development and where possible the restoration of the coastal areas,” according to the CRMC website.

In an email to The Herald, Laura Dwyer, public educator and information coordinator for the CRMC, acknowledged that while “ideally, regulators and planners could convince the public that it doesn’t make financial or public and personal safety sense to rebuild in areas that regularly experience extensive storm damage,” she doesn't think the state is “there yet.”

Currently, the CRMC has primarily used education to address coastal vulnerability. “Right now, our main goal is to educate coastal property owners and prospective owners and ensure they’re aware of the risk they assume by living along the shore,” Dwyer wrote.

For Schlichting, these efforts are important at certain historical moments and circumstances, but lacking. “We don't even have the tools to really pinpoint how large (the risk of sea level rise) really will be,” she said, referencing the fact that current flood maps will be made irrelevant by climate change.

Intersectionality: Climate change, inequality and gentrification

Elizabeth Rush, assistant professor of the practice in the Nonfiction Writing Program whose book about rising sea level on the New England shore was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, said that the impacts of climate change will not be equal among communities. She highlighted that, when discussing the earliest impact of rising sea levels in the state, it is important to remember that people who are already more vulnerable — environmentally, politically and economically — will suffer most.

In general, areas with higher property taxes have more available funds “for innovative infrastructure solutions that will safeguard them against the early rise of sea levels,” Rush said.

According to Rush, low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live in tidal wetlands. Even without considering the risk from climate change, flooding risk tends to make that land less valuable, she added.

“One thing that I see in some of the least resourced communities is people just leave their homes, they lose all their equity and they just walk away,” she said. “No one is helping them make their transition somewhere else.”

The transition would be challenging in any circumstances, according to Fussell, but the housing crisis often prevents people from moving to more climate-resilient places.

That is what the concept of climate gentrification entails in the context of sea level rise.

The process of climate gentrification can take three different forms, according to an article which Fussell referenced. First, the risk of weather events can make low-income neighborhoods outside of vulnerable zones attractive to wealthy home buyers. Second, low-income communities in vulnerable areas usually cannot afford the necessary personal investments to safeguard against flooding, thus forcing them to move. Finally, areas in which short-term improvements to increase resiliency have already been enacted become more desirable and, as a consequence, inaccessible to low-income individuals.

Climate gentrification, according to the article written by Aparna Nathan, a then-graduate student at Harvard, “will not only exacerbate inequality in cities already plagued by housing shortages and socioeconomic inequity, but also puts vulnerable populations right in the path of impending natural disasters.”

Schlichting referenced efforts in Providence in the 1970s to revitalize the waterfront as one example of gentrification and environmental injustice.

“The tension is, in cleaning up an industrial waterfront that had been ignored and polluted for so long, it also kicks out the people who had managed to stay,” said Schlichting. “So who is this new clean, accessible, aesthetically pleasing waterfront for?”

Schlichting added that industrial infrastructure, which often entails more pollution and environmental hazards, tends to be placed within communities with little political influence.

Rush said she has used storytelling to consider the emotional weight of climate change and how relocation will impact people's memories and identities — in the process, she said, these stories have given her some hope.

Moving: Identity, memory and language

Over the past decade, as Rush traveled the country interviewing individuals impacted by rising waters and climate change, she said she learned to leave her “climate change language at the door.” According to Rush, her job is to listen and create a safe space for people to “use the words that are meaningful to them.”

For Rush, storytelling is fundamental to enact change. Speaking about the writing workshops she teaches to waterfront communities, Rush said she focuses on talking about “the intimate details from your life that can be really powerful and specific, that will reach a listener, a policymaker so that they can't take your story out of their heads.”

Rush said she is also teaching vulnerability, targeting the most human aspects of retreat.

“What do you love about where it is that you live?” Rush said. “How is your identity tied to this place and how can we think about maintaining the most important parts of that identity even if it means moving?”

“People are very passionate about where they live, and what home means to them, even if it’s being vulnerable to storms, erosion and sea level rise,” Dwyer wrote. Schlingthing said she is also aware that “people will fight” relocation. “The beach in Rhode Island is beautiful and gives joy, (and) is a source of recuperation and beauty,” she said.

While Rush knows that, ultimately, “the choice to move or not move has to be a choice for a person,” convincing people to leave will only work when framed around concepts of healing, equality and community. “I always say that in the world of climate change we also have to have dreams and things that are worth working toward,” she said.

For Schlichting, no longer ignoring the challenge of climate change and related injustices is the only way to begin envisioning such a future.

“I think this should be frontpage news every week in the state of Rhode Island in every local paper,” Schlinting said. “Hiding our heads in the sand will not keep the water out of downtown Providence.”



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