Superstorm Sandy had a devastating effect on the business community along the Misquamicut shoreline in 2012. Little Mermaid’s restaurant and Sam’s Snack Bar were completely destroyed. Paddy’s Beach Club and the Andrea Hotel barely avoided the same fate.

As these business owners have rebuilt their businesses over the last six years, they have done so with rising sea levels and increased storm surge in mind. Little Mermaid’s and Sam’s now operate out of customized trailers. The Andrea Hotel has been converted into a seaside restaurant under a giant tent, and Paddy’s uses portable bars and furniture grouped in the sand. All can move their entire operations inland if a major storm approaches the area.

According to Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, all four businesses have traded in their permanent structures for temporary facilities that allow their owners to be more flexible in their operations. And they’re not the only ones with their eye on the changing climate.

Nearby, the Purple Ape made a dramatic architectural change in their business façade to reduce areas where water could enter. And the Atlantic Beach Casino Resort relocated the doors and windows to its indoor pool building for the same reason.

These are just a few of the many private, municipal, state and federal efforts underway to make South County more resilient in the face of rising seas and increasingly severe storms and mitigate potential damage from the changing climate. According to a gauge in Narragansett Bay, sea level has already risen about 10 inches since 1930. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects it will rise another 20 inches by 2030, and more than nine 9 feet by 2100. “This could mean that a 30-year mortgage taken out today on a home or business could experience more than three feet of sea-level rise during the loan term,” says Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. “When combined with more frequent and intense coastal storms, that’s going to mean significant impacts to coastal property.”

To prepare for what is to come, some organizations along the coast are attempting to rise above the situation by raising the elevation of their operations or raising protective barriers to protect their infrastructure. The Watch Hill Yacht Club, for instance, used hydraulic jacks to hoist its entire 4,000-square-foot clubhouse up 15 feet and constructed a new storm-resistant entry level beneath it. The new first floor has garage-like doors on all sides that can be opened to allow waves, rising tides and storms to move through without causing damage.

The town of Narragansett recently completed construction of a tall berm around three sides of its wastewater-treatment facility next to Scarborough State Beach. “It added a couple hundred thousand dollars of expense, but it also added 30 to 40 years of protection for the sewage treatment works,” says Michael DeLuca, the town’s community development director. Prior to the berm construction, major storms often caused the facility to flood, forcing a temporary shutdown of the plant until the water could be pumped out.

Perhaps the most dramatic effort to rise above the rising tides took place at Ninigret Pond, where 30 acres of salt marsh owned by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management were raised by up to a foot and replanted with more than 100,000 native marsh plants. Material dredged from the Charlestown Breachway was delivered to the marsh and placed in such a way as to recreate a natural salt marsh.

The rising sea level was causing the marsh to drown in place, says Caitlin Chaffee, a coastal policy analyst at CRMC, which partnered on the project with DEM, Save The Bay and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The goal was to increase the area of high marsh, which is the habitat most rapidly on the decline in Rhode Island,” she says. “Lots of the area was holding standing water and not draining at low tide, so the vegetation dies, the marsh subsides, and it becomes prime mosquito-breeding habitat.”

Using contractors, staff and volunteers, the partners raised the surface of the marsh and created a mosaic of habitat. Save The Bay coordinated the work of about 150 volunteers to plant cordgrass, salt meadow hay and other native plants. “Full vegetation recovery will take a few years,” Chaffee says, “but we are really encouraged by what we see so far. Many of the plants did really well, and a lot of stuff is coming in naturally by seed. It looked like a moonscape at first, but now there’s plenty of green on the marsh.”

A similar project at a salt marsh on the Narrow River was completed last winter, led by The Nature Conservancy. Marshes at Quonochontaug and Winnipaug ponds are due to have the same treatment in coming years.

CRMC and the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center have examined the issues of coastal erosion, sea level rise and storm surge from a more comprehensive manner with a planning document that mapped out how these factors would affect all 420 miles of the state’s coastline. The document, the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (or Beach SAMP), aims to provide guidance to landowners, municipal planners and others involved in building in coastal areas.

One outcome of the Beach SAMP, which was completed in May, is the requirement that those seeking a permit to build in affected areas must complete a risk assessment for their property, which includes identifying a “design life” for the structure based on its risk from climate-related factors.

According to Teresa Crean, coastal community planner at the Coastal Resources Center, the Beach SAMP provides the tools to inform decision-making, while offering adaptation strategies that can help move projects forward. “The next challenge comes in creating demonstration projects that test out these adaptation strategies,” Crean says. “Our options are to figure out how to keep the water out, accommodate the water coming in, or get out of the way.” 

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