How Rhode Island Can Resist Rising Seas

Gone are the days when coastal infrastructure could be built for a slowly changing environment.

Oakland Beach, Warwick ©MichaelCevoli

By Alex Kuffner | Courtesy of The Providence Journal

WARWICK — Tucked in amongst the grass and shrubs along the shoreline just a short walk from Oakland Beach is a patch of crumbling asphalt.

This is where Sea View Drive used to continue south along Buttonwoods Cove and curve around the coast to the beach that opens onto Greenwich Bay.

The storm surge from the Hurricane of 1938 leveled the homes built along the road and the same thing happened again during Hurricane Carol in 1954. Aerial photos taken after the latter storm show a sea of empty foundations.

And so a portion of the road was abandoned, replaced by a winding bike path that fronts the homes that remain in the neighborhood.

“It’s a nasty word, which a lot of people don’t want to hear, to retreat,” said Pam Rubinoff, senior coastal manager at the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center. “How do you retreat to protect your neighborhood?”

Until now, taking out oceanside homes or roads was rarely considered and only in the most extreme cases in the wake of hurricanes. But gone are the days when coastal infrastructure could be built for a slowly changing environment. Rising seas, accelerated erosion, and higher storm surges are expected to lead to more rapid and drastic changes.

If so, Sea View Drive could be a harbinger of the future for the Ocean State, said Rubinoff and Janet Freedman, coastal geologist with the state Coastal Resources Management Council, as they led a tour of coastal protection measures around the Oakland Beach area on a recent afternoon.

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