MISQUAMICUT — A year after Superstorm Sandy laid waste to Misquamicut, a group of coastal management experts and an official from the town of Westerly took a field trip to the beach community to assess its recovery.
Coastal geologist Janet Freedman, of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, Pamela Rubinoff, of Rhode Island SeaGrant, Westerly building official David Murphy, and David Prescott, the coastkeeper for Save the Bay South County, walked the beach, stopping often to examine man-made structures and natural coastal features.
It was a sunny day. Tourists were strolling along the wide stretch of sand, or enjoying drinks in front of the Andrea hotel. Many of the restored dunes sported green plugs of new dune grass. It was difficult to picture how the area looked after the storm, just one year ago.
“That was a very trying time for us, trying to get through everything that was going on. We worked our best way through it,” Murphy told the group.
But the past year also brought some pleasant surprises. One of them was how quickly the beach regained its sand. “It was amazing,” Murphy recalled. “You could watch the sand come in.”
Rubinoff said that this natural phenomenon has been observed along much of the Rhode Island coast.
“Most Rhode Island beaches have recovered fully, and some are a bit wider than before the storm,” she said.
Scientists have a basic understanding of how the ocean transports sediment, but they are still learning how it actually works. In the case of Misquamicut, the beach has been replenished, and with no additional storms to eat away at the sand, the accretion of the beach continues.
The other good news is that Misquamicut is less prone to erosion than many other barrier beaches.
“This one, erosion isn’t the biggest problem,” Freedman said. “It’s not as big a problem here as it is in other areas, like Charlestown, South Kingstown, where you have really huge erosion issues. I’m not saying that there isn’t any erosion, but it’s a lot lower rate of erosion here.”
The group’s visit was arranged by the Rhode Island Flood Mitigation Association, which brings together experts from the government and private sector.
Before they set off down the beach, Freedman delivered some bad news. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had just released its updated coastal flood maps, and much more of the Misquamicut area is now considered to be in a flood zone.
This not only means that the homes and businesses are considered more vulnerable to flooding; it also makes flood insurance much more expensive.
“This is the new one,” Freedman said, holding up a map showing large swaths of flood-prone areas colored in red. She said that the “BFEs,” the base flood elevations at which flooding will occur, have dropped — a development that she characterized as “sobering and a little alarming.”
The visitors discussed the most ominous threat of all: sea level rise. Building practices that were once considered adequate to protect structures from storm surge damage are no longer sufficient.
“A lot of information is based on 100-year storms, but conditions are changing with sea level rise,” Rubinoff said as the group walked past beachfront cottages. “We’ve mapped these areas. The CRMC is saying, ‘Let’s think about 3 to 5 feet in 2100.’ In higher sea levels, storm surge will be higher. Climate change affects storm intensity.”
Freedman said the community will have to take a serious look at adapting to what the future will bring.
“Frontal erosion is not as big a problem, but there are a lot of houses in this area that will be flooded. This is something we really have to start thinking about: what we’re going to do in this area. Even when houses are elevated, what happens to the septic?”
Murphy said that Westerly’s mandatory standard of elevating structures to one foot above base flood elevation may no longer provide adequate protection. “BFE plus one was supposed to accommodate sea level rise,” he said.
Anticipating rising sea levels and a more damaging storm surge, the Westerly Town Council has amended its building ordinance to allow residents to raise their homes even higher in flood zones, with up to 3 feet of freeboard, or feet above BFE. The increased height is voluntary, not mandatory.
Murphy said this policy decision would make homes better able to withstand flooding and would benefit every property owner in town. Westerly is one of only four towns in Rhode Island currently participating in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System, which encourages communities to take measures to reduce flood damage to property.
The better a town’s rating, the greater the flood insurance discount. Westerly is rated an 8 out of 10, with 1 being the top rating.
“If we do have a disaster, we’re going to be looked on more favorably by FEMA, because the more we follow their regulations and go above, the better for us,” Murphy said.
“Everyone is receiving 10 percent off flood insurance because of that rating, not just on the beach, but throughout the town.”
Farther down the beach, businesses such as Paddy’s Beach Restaurant and the Sandy Shore motel have replaced damaged structures with trailers or tents that can be moved in winter, or if a storm threatens. There’s also a large tent at The Andrea, and where Little Mermaids once stood, the owners employed a mobile food truck over the summer.
Murphy also noted that features like sun decks now have to be of “breakaway” construction, designed to break up into minimal pieces during a storm.
Commercial buildings like The Andrea and Pleasant View hotels are fortified with stone sea walls, known as revetments, which are permitted because they were built years ago. But the CRMC prohibits the construction of new sea walls and other hard stabilization structures, as the owner of one beach house found out after building one and then trying to conceal it by covering the entire thing with sand.
“This guy had to remove it,” Freedman explained. “It would have caused harm to his neighbor. The waves would have focused away from his property and right through her living room.”
At the corner of Benson and Atlantic Avenue, Freedman noted that a huge washover fan, or river of sand, was carried by the storm’s waves from the beach onto the road. She stood next to a fence and placed her hand 3 feet up a post.
“The sand was about up to here,” she said.
The neighborhood still bears many scars from the storm: empty house lots, brown grass and dead trees, and high water marks on many buildings. The beach may have largely recovered, but here, much work still needs to be done.
Prescott, of Save the Bay, said he was pleased with the condition of the beach, but he questioned the efforts to rebuild.
“It’s a tough one,” he said. “There’s still, in this state and this country, an immediate pressure to rebuild, and that’s what’s overwhelming our efforts to improve sustainability. One of the things I’m happy about is the whole topic of climate change is now being considered by coastal communities.”
Murphy said he was pleased with recovery efforts, but admitted that Sandy was definitely a learning experience.
“Overall, I think we’re faring very well,” he said. “There are still a lot of lessons to be learned here. There’s still a learning curve.”