Hurricane Sandy hit the shoreline town of Westerly, Rhode Island, pretty hard. In response, community leaders as well as state officials are rethinking their approaches to construction on Westerly's shore — and elsewhere on the Rhode Island coast. The Providence Journal has this report (see: "As climate warms, R.I. adapts to a changing coastline," by Alex Kufner).
Hurricane Sandy, like every hurricane, was unique in some ways. New Jersey and New York bore the brunt of the storm's impact. In Rhode Island, Sandy fell well short of the expected "100-year" hurricane event. Even so, the storm did significant damage in Westerly. For policymakers there, Sandy was just one more episode in a long-term process of erosion of the shore — a process which scientists expect to accelerate in coming decades.
"It's a moving target," Curt Spaulding, administrator for the EPA's New England region, told the Journal. "It's going to be moving faster."
Officials know that communities have to prepare for long-term change. But the tough question, the Journal reports, is how to go about it. "In a way, it may be easier to tell property owners to move out of the most vulnerable areas, but that's not realistic in Misquamicut, an important tourist destination, where the businesses and expensive homes on and around Atlantic Avenue make up a critical part of Westerly's tax base," reports the paper. ''It's hard to tell folks not to rebuild,' said Amy Grzybowski, the town's director of planning and code enforcement. But the town and state have been able to influence how property owners rebuild. That often means elevating a structure, 18 feet off the ground or more, which, said Grzybowski, can cost upwards of $100,000."
Westerly has received grants from FEMA to elevate houses along its hardest-hit shoreline, and has started to lift some of them. That will keep those houses above the floodwaters for decades. But elevating homes won't protect the beach they're built on — and how long that beach will stay in place is a big unknown. Ten miles up the shore from Westerly, stretches of sand along the South Kingstown Town Beach have retreated more than 300 feet since monitoring started in the 1950s. The day Hurricane Sandy came on shore, the bluff there moved shoreward 23 feet in a single day.