Preparing Ports to Ride Out the Storm

Mar 24, 2015Winter 2015

DEVASTATION FROM SUPERSTORM SANDY IN 2012 is still visible along the New Jersey shore, where thousands of houses were swept away or damaged, and it will be years before the destruction is no longer visible. The Port of New York and New Jersey was effectively shut down for one week after Sandy made landfall, resulting in an economic blow that was felt throughout the Northeast.

As the petroleum hub for southern New England, the Port of Providence is critical to the state’s energy supply.

In the storm’s wake there has been a flurry of activity among agencies and planners who are concerned about the future of the coastal communities—both residential and commercial—that are facing threats of rising sea level and intensifying storm surge.  All sorts of ideas are emerging to protect people and property along the coast—constructing barriers to block or alleviate storm surges, elevating shoreline structures, devising plans for evacuation of people and materials to higher ground, and installing devices to reduce erosion. What is not emerging is a clear picture of how to finance coastline resiliency over time.

Getting people to think about the bigger—andlonger—picture is especially critical for seaports that are threatened by sea level rise and storm surges, says Austin Becker, a University of Rhode Island assistant professor of Coastal Planning, Policy, and Design, who holds a joint appointment between the departments of Marine Affairs and Landscape Architecture.

“Ports provide a public good and we all benefit from that,” Becker says, using the Port of Providence as an example. With the exception of natural gas, most of the state’s energy resources come through that port, he says, “and so a storm hitting the Port of Providence can have huge ramifications for the whole state.”


As the petroleum hub for southern New England, the Port of Providence is critical to the state’s energy supply. Aerial Photograph by John Supancic.

Becker earned his doctorate at Stanford University where he researched ports around the globe but concentrated on two—Gulfport, Miss., and Providence. Gulfport, a container port on the Gulf Coast, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, port officials received $600 million to rebuild and make provisions for future storm hits. Originally, they planned to elevate part of the port 10 to 25 feet above its current height to raise the infrastructure out of the floodplain. In the end, however, they decided to use a large portion of the funds to dredge the area deeper to accommodate larger ships—an immediate fix that helps create jobs, but does not address future disasters.

“There are some disincentives from the federal government for implementing resilience measures,” comments Becker, “because people understand that when the big one hits, the feds will come in with disaster relief like they did after Sandy.”

As for the Port of Providence, a storm surge similar to the one that occurred in the infamous ’38 Hurricane could do considerable damage. The hurricane barrier that protects downtown Providence from flooding was built after Hurricane Carol in 1954, but the Port of Providence lies south of that barrier so it does not benefit from it.

The barrier may not be effective at protecting areas to the north, either, as the effects of climate change are more strongly felt. Grover Fugate, executive director of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), notes that the barrier was built using 1950s assessment data, which did not take into account sea level rise as the more advanced models of today do. The structures behind the barrier are not built to floodplain standards, he notes, so a breach of the hurricane barrier could cause substantial flooding and damage.

Storm surge brings threats to communities other than flooding. Shoreline debris can end up as floating battering rams.

Storm surge brings threats to communities other than flooding. Shoreline debris can end up as floating battering rams, and there are problems associated with moving certain port products, such as petroleum, to a higher ground to lessen the risk of creating a toxic soup in the upper bay, adds Fugate. Still another issue in Providence is the wastewater treatment plant at Fields Point, which, like the port, is located south of the hurricane barrier and in the area where surge is projected from some major hurricane events.

Another expert on coastal issues is Tiffany Smythe, who received her Ph.D. from the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences and taught marine policy at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Her research looks at coastal storm and port resiliency planning.

Two months after Sandy, Smythe visited the Port of New York and New Jersey and assessed the storm recovery process. The main challenge at that time, she says, was to get the port up and running again. Getting the petroleum facilities back online was the major priority, she explains, adding she did not see much planning for future disasters taking place.

The Sandy Hook Pilots Association, the business that provides pilots to escort ships entering and leaving the port, planned to elevate its building, which was destroyed in the storm. But many of the structures in the port are old, she notes, and there was little talk about redesigning port facilities other than relocating electrical and mechanical systems to higher levels.

Smythe’s students, future Coast Guard officers, were very concerned, she says, “about our abilities to plan for climate change and storm surges, and they were frustrated when they learned that these problems are complex, that there isn’t a clear government plan that can lead to a change, and that there is not a lot of public support for planning in this way.” Also on the cadets’ minds when it came to port protection, she adds, were oil spills, terrorism, and national security.

“They saw so many problems and the issue is how do we prioritize?”

One big issue in the Port of New York and New Jersey is that many of the facilities are privately owned while others are located on Port Authority land but are privately operated, says Smythe, noting that getting funding to make big improvements is a challenge for the owners of those facilities.

Ports around the world will have to take steps to deal with sea level rise and many will have to plan for higher storm surges, says Becker.

“It’s a multidisciplinary problem if there ever was one. We will need national strategies that consider coastal infrastructure and we will have to make some tough decisions about how the federal government invests to protect or not protect certain areas. You can come up with some rational basis for doing that. Politics will
also play a significant role.”

As for Rhode Island, Fugate believes the state is on the right track toward addressing the problems by funding research to come up with a “toolkit.”

CRMC, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Rhode Island Geological Survey, and URI are partnering with three communities—North Kingstown, Newport, and Warwick—to gather data needed to come up with solutions and recommendations. Raising some structures, modifying others so they won’t fall apart during a surge and cause further damage upstream, and erecting barriers to protect certain hazardous areas such as sewer plants and fuel storage facilities are all options. Erecting barriers may be a solution in some areas, notes Becker, but the cost of those structures could be in the billions of dollars and would take many years to construct.

Despite the extent of damages, Smythe’s study in New York following Sandy uncovered one bright spot—those who suffered damage in the port gave major praise to the disaster response of the Coast Guard and its partners, which ranged from government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to private businesses like the Sandy Hook Pilots Association. However, she explained, the Coast Guard doesn’t have the authority to tell port facilities how they should prepare for climate change.

“The Coast Guard and their partners are really good at responding to disasters like Sandy. But what is much harder to do is how to plan for an uncertain future.”

— By Rudi Hempe
     Aerial Photograph by John Supancic

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