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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Climate change can drive you nuts

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Bizarre weather changes are making us all a little nuts

PROVIDENCE — Gov. Gina Raimondo has yet to outline plans for addressing climate change, but so far, she appears to support the state climate change council and the Resilient Rhode Island Act, passed last year by the General Assembly.

Janet Coit, director of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and chairwoman of the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), has spoken with Raimondo several times about climate change.

“She sees this issue as an economic issue, a very important economic issue for Rhode Island, not just because of some of the challenges it poses but also some of the opportunities that we have,” Coit said during a Feb. 11 meeting of the EC4.

ecoRI News has contacted the governor’s office several times to request an interview with Raimondo in hopes of speaking with her about climate-change impacts and other local environmental issues. Our requests have been denied.

Four of Raimondo’s staffers visited the EC4’s first meeting of the year and the first since the new governor took office. Deputy chief of staff Eric Beane explained that the governor has grouped the state agencies into portfolios overseen by a chief of staff and two deputies. Beane will work with DEM, the Department of Health and the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA).

Coit has met with Beane to discuss potential appointees to the EC4’s yet-to-be-filled technical advisory board. The 13-member committee will have five appointees chosen by the governor, plus four each appointed by the House speaker and Senate president. There has been no word yet on the nine-member science advisory board.

The EC4 has until the end of 2016 to come up with a plan for cutting state greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. A contractor will be hired to develop the emission-reduction plan. The EC4 must also establish non-binding strategies for adapting to sea-level rise, severe weather, threats to infrastructure, and impacts on public health, the economy and the environment.

Coit reminded the EC4 that climate change is an immediate problem for the state. She noted that the tide in Newport, and presumably much of Narragansett Bay, is 10 inches higher since 1930. The state receives 10 more inches per year of precipitation than it did in 1940.

She added that storms are more intense, coastal erosion and loss of natural habitat are increasing, and marine life is changing. Warmer air temperature has increased ozone levels and air pollution, creating public health issues, she said.

“We’re experiencing climate change now,” Coit said. “And some of the recent events we’re experiencing and the lessons learned are useful for us to review.”

Rebuild or retreat?

Rebuilding, rather than relocating, was the response in two case studies looked at by the EC4 about storm recovery in Rhode Island.

In Westerly, 29 beachfront businesses were rebuilt after sustaining heavy damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Only five altered their building design to reduce the impact on the environment and make the structure more adaptable to erosion and harsh coastal weather.

Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce, told the EC4 that most business owners were determined to rebuild quickly after Sandy. But their headstrong strategy, she said, might change after the next disaster.

“If it were to happen again, some of them won’t rebuild at all next time,” Konicki said. “They just don’t have it in them physically, financially, emotionally to go through that. It is a crisis that unless you’ve been through it you just can’t even express it to somebody. It is so devastating for all of us. So stressful, so stressful.”

Konicki praised DEM, the Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC) and RIEMA for their rapid response to crisis. The stress and anguish business owner endured, however, was the result of haggling with insurance companies, problems with federal relief agencies, the loss of income and some looting, Konicki said.

The silver lining, she said, is that many of the businesses made more money last summer than the summers before the storm. A fact she credits to new, low-impact amenities such as tents for outdoor events that replaced permanent structures and two eateries that converted their kitchens into mobile food trailers.

Caroline Karp, a senior lecturer at Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies, questioned whether any structures should be rebuilt along beaches that are expected to erode considerably. Many environmentalists have raised this issue since Sandy and other coastal storms hit Rhode Island. Karp suggested that the state set clear standards for rebuilding and that a state inspector work with the local inspector to determine how or if a structure can be rebuilt.

Currently, local building inspectors decide if structures damaged by storms and flooding meet a 50 percent threshold. If the damage exceeds 50 percent of the cost to replace the structure, the owner can only rebuild if they comply with the most recent standards for height and distance from the water, called a setback. Due to ongoing erosion, many beachfront owners no longer have the space, much less the money, to comply with the more rigorous standards.

Konicki said there are no programs that offer funds or strategies for businesses to retreat inland or relocate.

“We were very fortunate that in Westerly the building inspector worked with people to really help them with that and try to keep people to the 49.9 percent so that they could rebuild if they wanted to under the old rule,” Konicki said.

RIEMA’s Michelle Burnett sought to clarify any suggestion that businesses received favoritism from building inspectors. REIMA officials, she said, made the damage assessment with local building inspectors.

“They had to be incredibly cognizant of exceeding that 50 percent rule,” Burnett said. “Had they done things to essentially fudge numbers, they would come under scrutiny when FEMA comes down to audit them.”

CRMC director Grover Fugate noted that a CRMC employee made the property assessments with the local building inspector after Sandy. However, he expressed concern about a likely problem that many beachfront property owners face: becoming stranded in the water as entire beaches move inland.

“The structure is then condemned, (and the owners) walk away from mortgages and who pays for the cleanup if it’s sitting out in the water?” Fugate said.

The topic, he added, will receive scrutiny during a March 3 forum sponsored by the CRMC at the University of Rhode Island, where a national expert will speak on coastal construction.

Coit summarized the private property dilemma this way: “After the hurricanes isn’t the best time to make those policy and legal decisions, so those are the things we need to be talking about now.”

Mental health

The topic of mental health received unexpected attention during the EC4’s Feb. 11 meeting. Konicki described the strain business owners and her staff felt as they worked through the recovery and rebuilding process after Sandy.

She recommended mental-health services as part of disaster relief for business owners “who were really put through the wringer emotionally and financially and ill-prepared to deal with this.”
“We needed somebody there that people could talk to and get a hug from, and get referred for counseling,” she said. “We needed counseling.”

A representative from the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Council also supported the need for raising awareness about mental health issues brought on by climate change and other disasters.

Mental health is one of the topics addressed in a new report on climate change and health resiliency released by the state Department of Health. The report says low-income and coastal communities are the most vulnerable populations.

Wastewater treatment

Like many sewage treatment plants in the state, the Warwick wastewater treatment facility is in a low-elevation, flood-prone area. The Warwick facility discharges into the nearby Pawtuxet River, which experienced a 100-year flood in March 2010.

Insurance and federal agencies paid for most of the $14 million in damages, and funds continue to support projects to fortify the facility and elevate pump stations across Warwick — all in an effort to meet a 500-year flood threshold. It will cost $2 million alone to raise the levee that protects the treatment facility from the river.

Sea-level rise, combined with the added rain and snow, has increased groundwater and stormwater runoff.

“The increasing precipitation is killing us,” said Janine Burke, director of the Warwick Sewer Authority. “We’re always responding to emergencies.”

This heightened water-flow problem has prompted the DEM to launch a project with the CRMC to study the impacts of climate change on wastewater treatment facilities. The March meeting of the EC4 will include this issue as part of a five-year-anniversary review of the 2010 flood.