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Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport) is chairwoman of the Special House Commission to Study Economic Risk Due to Flooding and Sea Level Rise.

Rhode Island can protect itself from some of the economic risks posed by rising sea levels through coordinated statewide planning and awareness programs aimed at policymakers, homeowners, business owners and real estate agents, according to a recent report issued by a House commission that has been studying the issue.

The House Commission on Economic Risk Due to Flooding and Sea Rise accepted its final report May 11, making several recommendations to increase preparedness for flooding from higher sea levels. The commission, led by Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport), conducted case studies on Westerly’s rehabilitation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Port of Providence’s susceptibility to sea level rise and storm surges and Newport’s research on resiliency and adaptation.

“What we found was that businesses from beachside restaurants in Westerly to marine shipping corporations in Providence are beginning to understand the threat of sea level rise and conceptualize solutions, but we still have much work to do to ensure the Ocean State adequately adapts to sea level rise. In the end, the state must adopt a philosophical approach to meeting adaptation goals that embrace the broader aim of protecting Rhode Island’s overall economy from the flooding and rising waters,” said Chairwoman Carson.

The report makes several recommendations for improving preparedness:

  • The creation of a flood audit program for property owners and businesses, similar to the RISE energy audit program, that incentivizes property fortification and adaptation. Under such a program, a property management consultant would visit the property or business to evaluate the flood risk for the land, assets and structure and provide the property or business owner with specific resiliency measures that could be taken.  The homeowner or business owner could be eligible for certain financing measures to reduce costs in exchange for implementing these resiliency measures. Although the cost and funding model is currently undetermined, the program could be funded through public or private investment.
  • Increasing statewide awareness and resources for resiliency among policymakers at the state and municipal levels. The commission recommends mandatory climate, flooding and sea level rise training for local planning and zoning boards and realtors; a flood insurance incentive program for property owners in the floodplain; and, the dissemination of the Coastal Resources Center’s adaptation catalogue to property owners in the flood plain.
  • A complete risk assessment, in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers, of the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier’s structural integrity and susceptibility to a power outage.  This review also should include a comprehensive capital investment plan for necessary modernization and fortification. The barrier, completed in 1966, was designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane but has never been tested. It operates on the electric grid, so it is susceptible to a grid power outage.
  • A comprehensive review of state resources available to businesses following a natural disaster.  The commission recommends that state policymakers assess a potential business continuity tool kit that could include sales tax deferments during rehabilitation and reconstruction, unemployment benefits for displaced workers and bridge loan programs for businesses waiting on flood insurance payments and FEMA financial support.
  • More risk assessment to understand statewide risk. The commission recommends a community-by-community analysis resulting in aggregate data that determines Rhode Island’s total economic exposure due to sea level rise, and that state agencies review all vulnerable assets and prioritize resiliency adaptation based upon rate of return on investment.

With over 400 miles of coastline, Rhode Island has substantial public and private assets along the coast and floodplain. Twenty of Rhode Island’s cities and town lie below the floodplain. The report points to Federal Emergency Management Agency data showing that 15,380 flood policies were written in Rhode Island as of September 2015, insuring property worth over $3.8 billion.

Accordingly, Rhode Island faces significant economic exposure due to flooding and sea level rise. The commission identified the clearest and most economically significant of these risks as damage to publicly and privately owned coastal properties, businesses and infrastructure and increased storm surge, business interruption, property devaluation, lost tax revenue to the municipalities and the state and climate-driven changes on labor productivity and public health.

The committee pointed to the measurable effects of sea rise the state has already experienced as a reason the state cannot delay, including a sea level measured 10.6 inches higher since 1930 at the Newport Tide Gauge; storms that are 30 percent more intense; summers that are measurably warmer; and coastal storms and sea surges that cause more and more damage.

“We have work to do to ensure the Ocean State adequately adapts to sea level rise,” Chairwoman Carson wrote in a letter introducing the report. “We can project Rhode Island as a leader in the region for taking steps to ensure minimal business interruption and loss of value due to sea rise and sea surge.”