The storm will come again
Is the level of the sea rising? It seems to be, I am not a denier. The rim of the dredged Old Harbor basin once was regularly visible on a low tide; now it is a rarity. Still, it is hard to tell, here. The beach is a fluid place where a six-inch pyramid poking out of sand in early September is a boulder in a sea of rock come winter.
With or without sea rise, we have the lessons of well-recorded storms, among them Hurricanes of ‘38 and ‘54, the ‘78 Blizzard — a brutal coastal weather event — the Perfect Storm in ‘91, a crazy March nor’easter that nearly took the Neck Road in 2008, Superstorm Sandy which did take that same threatened pavement in 2012. We have terrible, destructive blows and flooding rainfalls and we have absurdly short memories and a willful disregard of history.
Last summer I met someone from Portsmouth, R.I. with whom my tale of growing up in the shadow of the Great Hurricane of 1938 and Carol in 1954 resonated; his family’s business on the shore had been so damaged in those storms that after the second they were “insurance poor.” His mother would point to an expensive house near the water and say how little the land had cost but his father had refused to buy it because “the storm will come, again.”
I recently re-read the report commissioned on Neck Road. It presumed the Neck would become a separate island, and cited a future ferry service, or series of bridges as possible solutions, albeit far-fetched. Elevation, by far the least expensive, seemed a throw-away alternative, an afterthought lacking dramatic impact. It made the report feel like an assignment requiring a certain number of pages be filled, if only with nonsense. The road, I have said over and over at planning meetings, is a causeway from just north of Beach Avenue to Scotch Beach, and has been since a reconstruction and elevation in 1964 (not 1972 as stated in the report).
The state used to be much less bogged down by endless studies and paralytic searches for global solutions that have now trickled down to local government. The Narragansett Escape Road, that long stretch we travel to and from the boat, was built in 1956 after Great Island and Galilee were cut off by the high waters of Hurricane Carol two years earlier.
Yet, we see the houses at Sand Hill Cove, along the road that was submerged in 1954, grow and grow, which takes us back to willful disregard of history.
Prior to the 1964 rebuilding of the Neck Road, I remember a high moon tide coming across at Scotch and delaying our getting to school. That rebuilding was a big project, expanding well beyond elevation of low areas; land from Scotch north, including walls and hedges and parts of lawns still owned by the state, was condemned for widening that mostly did not happen. The entire road was torn up and rebuilt.
It seems hard for some to acknowledge this reality and to them I say take a slow ride from Beach Avenue to the entrance to Scotch. Notice the driveways on the west that are significantly lower than the pavement, notice the slope on the east where so many cars park in summer. The road was raised several feet. The dunes may not look as high as they are; I realized perhaps twenty-five years ago, the wide plain between them and the highway has gradually gained height, altering perspective.
Notice that the road dips in front of the beach house, a problem exacerbated as the level of the parking lot is significantly higher than it was before the late 80s/early 90s pavilion reconstruction, when instead of repairing the long-damaged lot, the state simply dumped fill over it. The 1964 incline down to the lot from the road has been almost erased.
We hear experts tell us to elevate Scotch Beach Road to keep the storm surge back which, on the surface, seems logical unless one has watched the Town Beach parking lot. Storm water comes up over it — and the road — and cannot retreat.
The ocean is going to go where it wants. Some of us saw the path of its determined travel after Sandy. At Scotch Beach, the biggest problem was not that the water poured in, but that it carried tons of sand that it dropped in place, effectively damming the outlet back to the ocean.
Elevating the road is expensive, but it is a state road and it was a much bigger project in 1964, when all the needed equipment and material came over before we had stern-loading boats. We need to stop being wedded to the two-island drama and focus on elevating the Neck Road, especially to make those places the ocean does come through a few feet higher. It seems the least of our problems and the easiest to fix, to have done and off the table, to stop consuming time and energy needed elsewhere.
Return to the trip down the Neck: when you’re headed back to town look over — and down — to the big, complex, issue: Ocean Avenue, the corridor between the harbors which did not exist on earlier, survey-based, maps, when the higher Old Town Road was the cross-island artery. For years, a high tide has come almost to the pavement in a few places on Ocean, a trend that shows no sign of reversing.
Filled land, particularly at the northeast corner of Bridge Gate, should never have been created, and buildings should never have been built upon it. But that ship has sailed and, like the breakwaters that created navigable access to the harbors at the cost of mucking up the normal flow of sand — witness the slow, documentable disappearance of the both West Beach and the south end of Crescent Beach — we have to deal with the problems we inherited.
Sensibly, I dare hope.