In recent days we’ve seen harrowing images of Texans carrying their children, belongings and pets against strong currents in chest-deep waters, and heard the heartbreaking stories of loss as one of the most-damaging storms in history wreaked its havoc on the Gulf coast.
Here in the Ocean State, we must take heed. We may be 1,800 miles away, but we are similarly at risk for devastating flooding in the event of a hurricane or other severe weather event.
In 2016, I led a special legislative commission that studied the economic risks that sea rise and flooding pose to our state. What our panel found was that Rhode Island can protect itself from some of the economic risks posed by rising sea levels through coordinated statewide planning and awareness programs aimed at policymakers, homeowners, business owners and real estate agents. But we also found that we musts do more to ensure that all policy makers across the state grasp that the risks aren’t merely hypothetical. As a coastal state with a majority of our population and resources located near the water, the dangers to our lives and resources are inevitable, and we need to protect them before the next Harvey, Katrina, Gloria or Carol comes our way.
Toward that end, this session I sponsored legislation requiring continuing training on sea rise and flooding for all local planning boards. The bill aims to ensure that those who have the front-line duties of determining whether, where and how we build our communities have the information and tools to ensure new development and redevelopment is built with an eye toward protecting assets from rising sea levels, which also affect inland and riverene municipalities. The training program has already been developed at the University of Rhode Island, having been funded in last year’s state budget, and consists of a one-hour course that planners can take for free online at their own convenience.
This is quite possibly one of the most critically important things we can do to protect public and private assets, as well as lives and livelihoods, from flooding. Empowering local planners to recognize future risks and require that future development protect against them will do more than protect their investments; it will also help keep insurance costs for all Rhode Island properties from rising rapidly, since high replacement costs and recurring disasters increase insurers’ costs, and property-holders’ rates. The insurance industry should embrace this effort to prepare for future risk.
This legislation has passed the House and is now awaiting Senate approval. The Senate Judiciary Committee had recommended it for passage by the full Senate before the Assembly unexpectedly recessed in June. I urge my colleagues in the Senate to see this bill through to the finish line when the two chambers return on Sept. 19.
Rhode Island must be more proactive in planning for flooding and sea rise. The devastating toll of human loss and suffering in Texas must remind us of the high stakes involved.