Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse chose the flood-prone Island Park section of Portsmouth as the backdrop to introduce the National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund. With local business, government leaders, and NGOs looking on, Whitehouse announced that the fund received its first $30 million appropriation in last month’s omnibus spending bill.
Whitehouse began by showing the two dozen attendees at the Thriving Tree Coffee House a map of Island Park with multiple levels of potential sea level rise, pointing out the location where they sat, amid swaths of color indicating the land around them that could be underwater by the end of the century.
“Businesses like this, communities like Island Park, municipalities like Portsmouth need resources,” said Whitehouse. “It is not baked into their budget to be able to do the things that need to be done: to redo the FEMA mapping which isn’t any good, to take a look at what’s happening to beaches. We have a beach SAMP going on run by Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), but it’s starved for resources.”
The fund, which grew out of legislation Whitehouse first introduced in 2015, would provide a dedicated funding stream for grants to local governments, states, universities, NGOs, and public-private partnerships. Applications include hardening coastal infrastructure, building community resiliency, investing in restoration, and supporting ocean and coastal research.
“For the first time we finally have an appropriation lined up and NOAA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will administer the first round of 30 million dollars in grants,” said Whitehouse. “I view this as a really important foothold, but that number frankly ought to be ten times that big. It perhaps even ought to be 100 times that big when you consider what so many coastal communities around our country are facing. We’re not quite yet at the stage of Alaska where they’re having to get special appropriations to move entire towns out of the way of sea level rise, but that gives a sense of how serious this can become if we don’t get ahead of it.”
The Island Park section of Portsmouth was once home to Cashman’s Amusement Park and the second-largest roller coaster in New England, before it was decimated by the Hurricane of 1938. It features hundreds of densely packed homes less than 15 feet above mean high tide all accessed from a main road — Park Avenue — which runs along the shore of the Sakonnet River. Town Planner Gary Crosby explained the unique threat this poses.
“Park Avenue is a state road where storm water is captured in a series of catch basins,” said Crosby, “And the water goes underneath the seawall out to discharge out on the beach.” Crosby recalled how in 2016, during the highest, “king” tides, sea water backed up level with the grates of the catch basins. “In 2016, it occurred on three days of the year. By 2040, a 4.0 tide would be exactly what we are seeing with one foot of sea level rise, happening 122 days out of the year. That roadway is going to be flooded a third of the days out of the year, it’s going to render this neighborhood dysfunctional.”
Local business owner Brandon Kidd, who has run Portsmouth’s Pirate Cove Marina for 50 years, talked about the changes his business had to make over that time, including installing higher and higher pilings to address rising sea levels. “The business community of Island Park is dependent on the ability of our patrons to reach us, regardless of the weather or the height of the tide,” said Kidd. “The collective clientele we all serve come from communities far and wide and Senator Whitehouse’s work will help our commerce to continue for future generations.”
Save The Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone called attendees’ attention to a fish tank in the corner of the room. “There’s a good example of what the Bay is going to look like soon,” said Stone. “Save The Bay operates a small aquarium at First Beach in Newport, and we have an exhibit called “The Bay of the Future.” It’s filled, Stone said, with tropical fish that are commercial by-catch. “We call them the strays, but they’re actually here more and more of the year. It’s angelfish and boxfish and other species — that’s another window into the Bay of the future.”
Stone praised Whitehouse’s successful efforts to build bipartisan support for the ocean fund, and put in a plug for Gov. Raimondo’s $5M green economy and clean water bond. “This funds various important investments in public infrastructure,” said Stone. “And for the first time ever the governor included a tranch of money for coastal resiliency. I urge you please call your state rep or your state Senator and urge them to support putting this bond before the voters.” He noted the relevance of the bond for the ocean fund, “The federal funding comes with a match. This state money would be usable as a match to federal grants. It’s not a huge sum of money, but it is a step down the road of providing communities with state and federal resources.”
Whitehouse explained to a reporter how he was able to get the funding for the initiative through the current Congress. “A couple of things broke our way,” he said. “First of all I’ve been working on this for a long time and around the Senate, people appreciate persistence. And so even people who didn’t like it had kind of come around.” He also had words of thanks for several colleagues, including Sen. Richard Shelby (AL), head of the Appropriations Subcommittee “whose staff helped come up with a solution that made this possible,” and Sen. John Kennedy (LA). “He has traditional communities that are actually already in retreat and they are having to abandon the place that they’ve lived for hundreds of years. So it’s a very real thing for him.”
Portsmouth Town Council president Keith Hamilton expressed cautious optimism. “My hope is just that there is funding available for Portsmouth,” he said. “I hope that [Whitehouse] being here Portsmouth is a harbinger of good things to come and that there is funding available for us here to help the town planner.”
Rhode Island’s chief resilience officer Shaun O’Rourke was on hand and explained the significance of the fund to a reporter. “There’s no way we’re going to solve all these problems with one source of funding,” he said. “This takes multiple sources, from multiple different areas, And one of them is federal, one of them a state, and one of them is local. The way we’re going to start to move the needle on these projects is by stacking and stretching these limited resources.”