Surrounded By Water

Sun, 11/15/2015 - 7:15pm
It is with an abundance of caution thrown to the wind that I say my reaction to last month's meeting on coastal change, one intensified with my reaction to other people's reactions, was “what has happened to us?”

I do understand the politics of it all and, absolutely, it is always a positive thing to have state agencies come to Block Island, one even to celebrate. It was good to hear Executive Director Grover Fugate, who has long been a part of the Coastal Resources Management Council, acknowledge that Block Island is often omitted from studies.

Enlisting local residents to monitor the shore is a huge step, and perhaps the lack of mention of other sources, pre-existing sources, was for the sake of a limited amount of time.

It has been a given that the Neck Road was imperiled for years. In the early 1990s, the Army Corps of Engineers came to talk of the Old Harbor channel shoaling, the deficiencies of the breakwater, and of the ongoing loss of the beach along the south end of Corn Neck Road. There were ocean currents, they told us, curling around the end of the breakwater, currents that would undo whatever efforts were made to rebuild the beach.

As they spoke, someone noticed an aerial photo in the room. There was that very current swirling around the tip of the green jetty, that picture worth a thousand words. The beach was going, it was an inevitability; the road could only follow.

Some may recall one channel dredging when the spoils were shot through conduits on pontoons, to build a great expanse of sand just off that beach. It lasted a year or two. (Not to be confused with the dredging of the inner basin dumped not far enough offshore, when the shore was littered with very old Narragansett beer cans among other nasty things.)

There is a great deal of information from acknowledged experts, such as the late Dr. Sirkin, a geologist who summered here. His work is cited in another Special Area Management Plan (SAMP). More recently, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, a team of archeologists lead by Dr. Kevin McBride carefully detailed damage done around the perimeter of the Island. There are dated aerial photographs of the bluffs, especially of the Southeast Lighthouse, where there are foundations and boulders, easy reference points carrying from one image to another.

There is local knowledge, the mere mention of which has become a third rail. There is not a great deal of real documentation available of the impact of the 1938 hurricane, there are multiple accountings, which often contradict each other. There are after-the-fact photographs, there are stories we recall hearing, but there are a very few people who were old enough at the time to remember it first hand with a more precise memory than any of us have of storms of our childhood.

I have a very unscientific letter my grandfather wrote the morning after, saying he had not sustained much damage, that the water had not quite reached the freight office — Finn's today. Of course, the parking lot was a sea of sand dunes, offering more protection than a flat paved surface. There are a number of after-the-fact little black and white photos. The Providence Journal publications are virtually silent on the matter of Block Island for both of the worst storms, 1938 and Hurricane Carol in 1954.

Still, there are people about who remember 1954, and the Blizzard of '78, which did great damage to the coast, and certainly the Perfect Storm of the fall of 1991, when we first lost a chunk of Spring Street to the angry sea, and Sandy, and with each event there is an increased abundance of photographic documentation.

The on-line maps are computer generated, and I do understand there has to be a starting point but... I have never understood the lack of attention paid to Mansion Beach after Sandy. The damage was numbing, the worst I had ever seen. A path below the old farm was blown open, good size rocks were carried through the new gap by the force of the sea. 

We have to start somewhere, but the online maps show that path untouched by Sandy.

Which takes me back to the strange one-size-fits-all meeting, which by all logic should apply in a state as small as Rhode Island. But, the offered “solution” of raising the level of the parking lot to keep the ocean from the road has been disproven here.

I was baffled, I readily admit, the first time a storm came across the Neck Road after the level of the parking lot at the pavilion was raised (when the building was rebuilt in 1991). It did not make any sense.

Then I realized the great basin that used to hold the ocean, the one created in 1964 when the length of the Neck Road from just north of Beach Avenue to Scotch Beach was elevated several feet, had been greatly reduced making it easier for the water to flow over the road again as it had most notably in Carol in 1954. We saw prolonged flooding at Scotch in Sandy because so much of the beach was pushed into the parking lot and the ocean was unable to retreat.

It used to happen, this ocean over the road, it is likely why they raised the road all those years ago, when the State was still willing to spend money out here, probably with a rare vision of the amount of tax revenue this place would generate when tourism returned.

I am too impatient. I went to a meeting expecting to hear real proposals for Corn Neck Road. Still, I am not sure what it means that it took as long as it did for an audience member to ask, “What do we do now?” 

Someone said we are more “savvy” than people elsewhere, but we are not. We simply live on an island, surrounded by water and weather that are impossible to ignore.