Unsafe Harbor

Fall 2019


 By Cathy Shufro
Photographs by Michael Salerno

A yellow-and-gray crane towers above a hill of salt on the ProvPort pier. This late-March delivery from Egypt constitutes just a fraction of the 650,000 tons of road salt that the crane will unload here by year’s end—salt shipped from Morocco, from Chile, from the Bahamas. Highway crews will spread it this winter in eastern Connecticut, throughout Rhode Island, and in Massachusetts from Springfield clear out to the islands.

Nearby, on other ProvPort land overlooking Narragansett Bay, roughly 4,000 derelict cars sit in rows on a capped landfill. They are among 30,000 that will be shipped this year from Providence to the Middle East and West Africa, where the cars will be refurbished. The sun glints on their roofs.

Just as it takes an effort to picture icy roads on a balmy afternoon, it’s difficult to imagine what the port landscape in the upper bay and along the Providence River would look like in the midst of a raging hurricane, or how the shoreline will alter as the climate heats up and tides rise.

“When the port was developed [in the 1930s], they weren’t considering sea level change,” says Bill Fischer, the spokesman for ProvPort. The private nonprofit controls 115 acres at Fields Point, south of the city.

“Post-Katrina was when we started hearing people talk about it,” says Chris Waterson, general manager of Waterson Terminal Services, which runs ProvPort.

“And after Sandy,” Fischer adds.

A Lucky Left Hook 

Superstorm Sandy was heading straight for New England in October 2012 when it veered westward. On October 29, the storm hit New Jersey instead and then slammed into New York Harbor. The resulting havoc shut down the Port of New York and New Jersey for a week.

Sandy’s “left hook” spared Rhode Island and its ports. But when a major hurricane does hit Narragansett Bay (as happened in 1938 and 1954), how will it affect the low-lying coast of Providence and East Providence?

The dikes and gates built at Fox Point following Hurricane Carol in 1954 won’t shield the port area from a storm: That barrier was built to protect downtown Providence.

To the south lies a dense industrial lands-cape dotted with storage tanks filled with gasoline, jet fuel, liquid asphalt, and the heating oil that supplies most of Rhode Island. On or near the waterfront are a metals recycling company, a sewage treatment plant, a wholesale distributor of chemicals, and two 400-ton cranes.

As ecoRI News notes, 11 of the Providence polluters listed in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory Program are located in the port neighborhood.

The nation’s disaster specialist—the Federal Emergency Management Agency—has called Narragansett Bay “the Achilles’ heel of New England.” And Rhode Island politicians, planners, businesspeople, and other citizens worry about storms to come. Still, no one interviewed for this story was willing to speculate much about what a powerful hurricane would do to the Port of Providence (at 41.8° N) and to the smaller Port of Davisville on Quonset Peninsula (at 41.6° N).

Sandy’s impact on the Port of New York and New Jersey could prove to be a preview: Waves there broke records. Port terminals flooded. 

Map of Providence Harbor showing the maximum surge from the hypothetical storm scenario “Hurricane Rhody.” Flood levels assume the hurricane barrier is not overtopped. Hurricane Rhody storm model created by Professor Isaac Ginis’s lab and map created by Austin Becker’s lab.

Sewage plants over-flowed, and waste contaminated drinking water in a swath from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Queens, New York. Debris cut off the port from higher land by clogging storm drains and blocking low-lying roads and train tracks. Power lines went down, and fuel for back-up generators was stuck in storage tanks whose pumps had been swamped and ruined. Water poured into sections of the New York City subway system and inundated the highway tunnel linking Brooklyn and Manhattan. The storm damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and apartments.

The closure of New York Harbor severed regional and international supply chains, causing billions of dollars in losses. Similarly, Narragansett Bay’s two commercial ports handle cargoes from all over the world, and the ports are vital to the region’s economy: ProvPort is one of the major deepwater ports in the Northeast, and Davisville is, among other things, a major automobile importer; last year, ships delivered 240,000 cars to Davisville. Together, the ports provide jobs for 3,000 people, from stevedores to truck drivers to small business owners. Davisville also serves the adjacent Quonset Business Park, with 11,400 employees. Both ports are expected to play roles in the construction of the proposed offshore wind farm to be built between Montauk, New York, and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Yet Rhode Island has no long-term strategy for protecting these ports. State Rep. Lauren H. Carson (Newport) said that many people are in denial about how a hotter climate is already affecting Rhode Island.

“For many people,” she said, “climate change and the threat of flooding seem really far away in the future.”

Such complacency is one of several barriers to confronting climate change. Impediments include:

  • Uncertainty About Scale:
    No one knows exactly how bad storms will become or how frequently they will hit. Conservation Law Foundation lawyer Christopher Kilian puts it this way: “Are you engineering for the biblical flood, the one that happens every five years on average, or the 100-year flood?”
  • Uncertainty About Timing:
    Hurricanes pass within 50 miles of Rhode Island every four years, on average. That doesn’t tell us when a big one will take that left turn. But according to Professor Austin Becker at the University of Rhode Island Marine Affairs Coastal Resilience Lab, “There’s going to be a big hurricane sometime. For sure.”
  • A Culture of Short-term Planning:
    We’re used to anticipating problems likely to occur in the months, years, or (at best) a decade ahead. Becker interviewed two dozen port stakeholders to evaluate long-term planning for climate change in Rhode Island. He found that most businesses and government agencies do not look further ahead than 10 or 20 years. A more common planning horizon is two to three years, or the time until the next election. Investments made now might not prove their worth for decades—say, until 2100, when the sea level at Newport could have risen by as much as 9 feet.

Europeans have established their expertise in flood management, a vital aspect of climate change resilience. More than 20 years ago, the Dutch built a huge floodgate to protect Rotterdam, one of the world’s busiest ports. The Maeslant barrier comprises two floating pontoons that normally leave the channel open to the port. Those doors can, in under two hours, join to block the harbor, then fill with water and sink onto a concrete base, creating a wall against a storm surge.

Who Should Pay?

Protection will require fortifying some structures, moving others, and finding new ways to block or direct floodwater away from vulnerable areas. It will be very expensive. Often, those likely to benefit from a project are the ones who finance it.

But it’s difficult to pinpoint the beneficiaries when it comes to climate change. Destruction or flooding along Narraganset Bay and the Providence River would affect disparate groups of people, including port neighbors whose drinking water might become polluted, residents far from the coastline who might run out of heating oil, people who lose jobs because their workplace has been destroyed, or hospitals forced to operate on generators.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 caused region-wide damage costing the equivalent of $5.4 billion in 2019 dollars. Although governments may be reluctant to pay for prevention, hurricane recovery gets funded; it’s easier to evade the costs of planning and protection than to tell people driven from their homes that they should sleep under a bridge.

Becker notes that one confounding factor in paying for resilience is the federalist system of government in the United States. Federal money does not always get distributed to states solely according to needs such as level of risk.

“Funding isn’t always optimal,” says Becker, “and it’s subject to politics.”

But even if enough money is ever forthcoming, it is not going to be obvious how best to use it. Many of the decisions will require technical knowledge across disciplines. As ProvPort general manager Waterson says, “I know the port could have issues, but I don’t know right now what I would even recommend to spend money on. That’s not my area of expertise: I know how to run a port.”

The Elizabeth River, out of Hong Kong, offloading 50,000 tons of salt at the port of Providence. The salt is sourced from the interior of Egypt and is used as ice melt. PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

Lack of Leadership

No one seems willing or positioned to push the issue forward. Some candidates for leadership include the import-export businesses using ProvPort, corporations like Shell that store fuel on land vulnerable to flooding, the sewage treatment authority, elected officials (from the governor to local town council members), environmental organizations, neighborhood groups, engineers, climate scientists, lawyers, insurance companies, and universities.

But which of these should lead? Who has the authority to do so?

Becker and URI graduate student Eric Kretsch used the Port of Providence as a case study to explore this question. They brought together public and private organizations in Rhode Island that would benefit from resilience investments and asked them whether the private or public sector is best suited to take the lead.

They found that private-sector representatives wanted the government to do it, while public-sector representatives believed that the private sector should assume some of the burden. The researchers asked each stakeholder to choose the entities or individuals who should take charge, and the 25 participants suggested more than 25 possible leaders. When Becker and Kretsch reported on their research in Frontiers in Earth Science in February 2019, they titled their article,The leadership void for climate adaptation planning.”

The Rhode Island government and other organizations have convened panels, held public hearings, and commissioned studies. The most notable report has been “Resilient Rhody,” issued in 2018 by the 12-member Executive Climate Change Coordinating Committee that the legislature had established in 2012. Its recommendations exemplify the generalities that have emerged from discussions of climate-change planning.

In a section on ports, “Resilient Rhody” recommends that the state “strengthen storm resilience and post-storm recovery of the ports through strategic partnerships and planning.” Providence and East Providence “should approach storm resilience and climate change as a business opportunity through inclusion of resilience planning.”

State agencies should help the ports develop contracts for clean-up after hurricanes. Overall, the advice is to:

“Establish a new collaborative partnership between the state and port community to understand the economic implications of severe weather events and benefits of storm resilience planning.”

One exception to the report-generating mode is a lawsuit filed by the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation. In August 2017, the nonprofit sued Royal Dutch Shell and Shell Oil U.S. for ignoring the dangers that climate change poses to its 25 petroleum storage tanks in Providence. According to the suit, even a Category 1 hurricane would likely flood the facility on Allens Avenue near the west bank of the Providence River.

The suit argues that Shell is violating the terms of its federal permits under the Clean Water Act by failing to harden its facilities (or move them) in the face of sea level rise, increasing rainfall, and other results of climate change. Kilian, the lead lawyer on the case, says Shell should either elevate its storage tanks or move them to higher ground. “My observation is they are willing to gamble with the public risk. It’s arguably impossible for them to adapt this facility and make it safe, because of its location.” The case is being heard in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island.

Waterfront fuel storage tanks in Providence are the basis of a lawsuit by the Conservation Law Foundation. Photo by Maine Imaging

Uncertainty Thwarts Action

Ninety percent of goods traded worldwide travel by ship, and coastal ports worldwide face new hazards arising from climate change.

Marine ports are by their nature especially vulnerable to hurricanes and typhoons; sea level continues to rise as polar and glacial ice melts and as seawater warms and expands. Storm surges will also worsen because weather patterns are intensifying and sometimes prolonging storms. Members of the Worldwide Network of Port Cities, based in Le Havre, France, have made climate change adaptation their priority.

The network recommends that ports reduce or eliminate emissions (to avoid worsening climate change) and develop strategies to prevent flooding. The group also suggests that port cities consider consequences of global heating beyond flooding, such as the effects of hotter temperatures on port laborers.

URI’s Austin Becker says that most sectors of society in the United States do not see enough incentive to engage in climate change adaptation: Businesses strive to profit in the short term, so they have little interest in benefits unlikely to materialize for decades.

Politicians are driven by election cycles and not long-term projects that will (or might) bear fruit long after their careers have ended. Because insurance companies rewrite policies annually, their calculation of risk does not factor in change across decades. The public sector is more accustomed to taking a long view. However, government planners are reluctant to spend money on mitigating threats whose timing and magnitude remain uncertain.

Becker has identified one group that does have incentives to provide leadership: Academics. They make a living by addressing complex interdisciplinary problems like climate change. “Our job is to train the next generation, through teaching, and to provide new information, through research. Both of these, we hope, will help society make better choices.”

But for now, there’s much more talk than action in Rhode Island. “I don’t think anything will happen until there’s a major issue,” says ProvPort manager Waterson.

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