concrete structure on the coastline during sunset
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Climate change, with its rising and warming seas, more frequent and severe storms, poses an increasing threat to shoreline tourism communities, like Newport and Rhode Island’s south coast, according to a leading Rhode Island tourism official.

“People are drawn to the water,” says Evan Smith, executive director of Discover Newport, and a 30- year veteran of the tourism industry. “We’re fascinated by water, always drawn to the sea.”

But climate change, he says, is taking its toll. 

Cities, like Venice, “have to build their buildings on huge floats,” a major portion of Newport’s Cliff Walk has fallen into the sea as storms “continue to attack our coastlines,” Smith says, and beaches from Cape Cod to Long Island and along Rhode Island’s south coast are eroding. 

Seawalls and elevated buildings, he says, are “just band-aids. They’re trying to build seawalls in Manhattan…that kind of thinking may buy you decades. It certainly won’t buy you centuries.”

According to Flood Factor, a website of the non-profit First Street Foundation, Newport, and Washington County (Rhode Island’s south coast) face a moderate risk of substantial flooding over the next three decades.

Flood Factor says 780 Newport properties have a more than 26 percent chance of severe flooding over the next 30 years, representing 10 percent of all city properties. Washington County, Flood Factor says, has 8,157 properties in danger of severe flooding over the next three decades, representing 12 percent of all county properties. 

Smith and several insurance industry sources say businesses and homeowners are facing skyrocketing flood insurance increases. 

FEMA and its National Flood Insurance Program last fall adopted the first new methodology for determining flood insurance rates in years. For some, less than 30 percent, it meant a rate decrease. For others, an increase, sometimes a sharp increase.

According to FEMA, the new methodology “adapts to climate change,” but also factors re-building costs, among other items.

According to the National Flood Insurance Program, the average flood insurance cost for homeowners nationwide is $958 a year. For Rhode Island, among the highest rates, it’s $1,416.

“The debate,” Smith says, “is really with insurance companies. Some are saying if your business is in that zone, we’re not going to insure you. Then, businesses (owners) must determine their business model and decide whether they can take that risk. Right now, it means today, will your insurance company cover you? That’s as much a driving force as science.”

Smith’s comments come shortly after the Newport City Council received a comprehensive transportation master plan that said climate change is a major concern over the next several decades.

[Read More – Transportation Master Plan – Part I: Climate Change threatens historic, commercial, and residential neighborhoods]

That report said sea-level rise over the last 90 years has been about seven inches, but over the next several decades will rise another one to three feet. In danger, that report says, are historic districts in Newport, including Thames Street.

Smith says businesses, and presumably governments, need to rely on their “ingenuity” to combat climate change as they develop initiatives that preserve a shoreline so cherished by Rhode Islanders and visitors alike.

Flood Factor says state and local governments can protect their communities through zoning, stormwater management plans, enforcement of building codes, levees and flood walls, and natural storage.

 Smith also touched on several other topics during the interview, including:

  • A prediction that gas prices will help keep people closer to home, and result in a robust tourism season for the region. The pandemic has resulted in pent up desires to vacation, but rising airline costs and COVID risks internationally, will keep people closer to home. 
  • While he predicts domestic tourism to rise, he says international tourism to Newport will be 40 percent or less than normal. “A lot of jitters in the international marketplace.” Many people are not ready to travel, and many countries, including the United States, have strong testing rules. Typically, international travelers represent about 18 percent of visitors to Newport, Smith says. He predicts that to slip to 5 to 7 percent this year.
  • Cruise ships will return, perhaps 60 this year, half of what would visit Newport in a normal year. 
  • He says that cruise ships, even in the most robust of years, represents only a small part of Newport’s tourism industry. Cruise ships “look big and look spectacular,” but Smith says represent only about 200,000 of the 3.5 million visitors to Newport each year.

[Related – Here are the 58 cruise ships that are currently scheduled to visit Newport in 2022]

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal. Prosnitz began his journalism career as a sportswriter at the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, moving to The News Tribune (Woodbridge, NJ), before joining the Providence Journal. Prosnitz hosts the Morning Show on WLBQ radio (Westerly), 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and It’s Your Business, also on WBLQ, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Prosnitz has twice won Best in Business Awards from the national Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), twice was named Media Advocate of the Year by the Small Business Administration, won an investigative reporter’s award from the New England Press Association, and newswriting award from the Rhode Island Press Association.