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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Helping coastal communities

Grad students awarded national fellowships to help coastal states cope with climate change

In 2018 alone, coastal hazards like Hurricanes Florence and Michael caused nearly 100 casualties and tens of billions of dollars in damages across several states. With scenarios like that in mind, coastal management programs around the country are looking for ways to make their communities more resilient. Thanks to a national fellowship program, this year three of them are turning to University of Rhode Island postgraduates for help.

Leah Feldman, from Port Washington, New York; Sabrina Pereira, from Coventry, Rhode Island; and Ben Sweeney, who is a native of Pembroke, New Hampshire — all recent URI Marine Affairs master’s degree graduates — have been awarded prestigious two-year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Management Fellowships. 

It is believed to be the first time three candidates from any state (and the entire contingent from Rhode Island) were selected for this highly competitive program. Only six individuals from across the nation were awarded these fellowships, which provide unique research opportunities and stipends for those chosen.

The fellowship matches postgraduate students with projects in six state coastal management programs. Twelve fellowship candidates, whittled down from up to 55 applicants, spent several days in May at the headquarters of the NOAA Coastal Management program in South Carolina meeting with sponsors from the programs to discuss the fellowship projects and present their qualifications. 

At the end of what might be described as a grueling week-long job interview, Feldman was matched with New York, Pereira will be heading to New Jersey, and Sweeney will be returning to work in his home state of New Hampshire.

Feldman’s New York project will be to create a tool using augmented reality or virtual reality to help community members visualize what may occur along their shorelines, to their infrastructure and on their properties as they face the impacts of climate change. 

The project is intended to “promote community awareness and involvement in coastal management decisions,” Feldman says, “The whole idea is to better prepare communities for extreme events like storm surge events, superstorms and even just the everyday of coastal erosion and sea level rise.”

She says her experiences as a graduate student at URI helped prepare her for this opportunity. “There’s so much I learned here at URI that I would not have known otherwise. The classes I took—like environmental justice, environmental thought and behavior, and even economics and coastal zone law—prepared me so well to come into this experience with a lot of confidence about my ability to address these problems (with) the most current and the best practices for coastal management,” including, she says, in “how to engage communities in a proactive and equitable way.”

New Jersey is trying to ensure that its underrepresented and socially vulnerable residents are included in coastal hazard planning, and Pereira says she is excited to work in a program so focused on environmental and social justice. 

“I took a course at URI this past fall with Professor Jessica Frazier and it really opened my eyes to this whole subject and the multitude of issues that many minorities, people of color and other vulnerable groups have been subjected to throughout history,” she says.

She will be developing a framework for equitable community resilience planning in conjunction with other partner organizations. “I’ll be having conversations with community members and organizers to figure out what the measures should be. 

The main goal of this project is to learn which populations are the most vulnerable in New Jersey,” for example, low-income residents, those who speak a language other than English at home, those who lack adequate housing or access to transportation, or communities with special needs. “I will get the opportunity to try to identify these populations and learn from communities if there are any other key characteristics that should be recognized,” said Pereira.

In the lead up to her fellowship, which starts Aug. 1, Pereira says she is “reading up on these topics on my own and trying to become more versed and knowledgeable to be fundamentally helpful to these communities in the future.”

Sweeney, who has an undergraduate degree in engineering, said he came to the URI Marine Affairs program “because this program is so interdisciplinary … it was an opportunity for me to leverage the engineering and physical science skills I developed in the past while becoming more well-rounded by developing policy, social science, and community planning skills.”

Of his project, Sweeney says, “One of the handicaps New Hampshire communities face is a lack of funding for improved resilience and adaptation projects. One thing I’m really looking forward to is working hand in hand with those communities to help them with their coastal flooding and stormwater management challenges by coming up with creative financing and policy strategies that can alleviate some of the issues they’re having” with sea level rise and other climate change threats.

To apply to the fellowship program, prospective candidates submit applications to their state Sea Grant programs, which interview the students and forward up to three to NOAA for consideration. Margaret Allen, fellowship coordinator for this NOAA program, says, “It seems like every year the quality of students just gets better and better. I’m thrilled to have the three students from Rhode Island—they really were standouts; the states were talking about them all week during the matching process.”

Dennis Nixon, Rhode Island Sea Grant director, is also a professor of Marine Affairs and had all three students in his coastal zone law class.

“We are one of a select few graduate programs that really emphasize the diverse issues faced in coastal management and the legal tools available to deal with those challenges. Each of them is well-prepared to join a professional staff and start making contributions immediately,” he says.
Nixon notes that although individual students from URI have been successful garnering these fellowships for several years, this is the first time in the program’s history that half of the national fellowships were awarded to students from the same program – URI’s Master of Marine Affairs. 

“This accomplishment is all the more special as we begin the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Marine Affairs Program. One of the students in its first years was Bob Knecht, who a short time later would become the director of the National Coastal Zone Management Program. Bob passed away a few years ago, but I’m sure he would be proud that URI has continued its excellence in marine affairs education.”