2018-03-15 / Around Town

Be Ready for Future Floods

By Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA


This view of Bowen's Wharf from a few years ago shows the dramatic reality of flood waters during a coastal storm. (Photo provided by Ross Sinclair Cann) This view of Bowen's Wharf from a few years ago shows the dramatic reality of flood waters during a coastal storm. (Photo provided by Ross Sinclair Cann) It often takes a Nor’easter like last week to remind people in coastal communities that the beautiful vistas we enjoy can turn dangerous under certain circumstances. While Newport was fairly lucky this time, those who were here for Superstorm Sandy just a few years ago saw firsthand the nightmare of rising waters.

There are things that each property owner can do to protect their homes, and actions communities can take to slow and someday reverse the rising waters that global warming threatens to bring to our City by the Sea.

First, we must recognize and prepare for the real potential for a flood. This is not as easy as looking out the window to see where the water is. There are many houses along Thames Street, the Point Section, in the Yachting Village and in the Fifth Ward that are likely candidates for flooding, even though they are not immediately next to the water.

The best way to evaluate your potential risk is to go to fema.org, find your local flood map and print it out for your neighborhood. These maps are in the process of being updated, so don’t be fooled if you look at a map from 20 years ago that shows you are not in a flood area. Things may well have changed in that time.

There are three types of zones on the FEMA maps: the AE zones, which are areas thought to be outside a 100-year flood zone; V zones, where there is the danger of rising waters to a specified height above mean sea level; and VE zones, where there is a danger of water striking the building with lateral force. Each of these zones has different implications for permitting, building and insuring properties. You may want to consult a surveyor, civil engineer or architect.

In this case, an ounce of prevention will be worth a ton of cure. For anyone who has suffered a major flood, the long-term implications of water to the structure and material contents of the home are indelibly burned into their memories.

If you are in a flood area, there are ways to minimize future damage. Moving the mechanical equipment above the probable flood line is a way to make sure you do not lose heat and hot water. You can also install a sump pump in your basement to help process any unwanted water that may enter the house.

If you are in a VE zone, you may want to also install breakaway panels so that the force of the water will not knock over the foundation or walls but will allow the water to flow in and back out after the flood is over. You can choose materials like luxury vinyl plank or laminates for the areas of potential flooding that will not be too negatively impacted by a flood. There are special sheet rock products which, unlike gypsum wall board, are immune to water damage.

With regard to your community and neighborhood, be aware of developments that might amplify flooding. The more impervious a surface that is built, the more difficult it is for the ground to quickly and effectively absorb water. Likewise, development of lowlands and marshes removes a buffer that can naturally absorb water.

The terrible damage that occurred in Houston during Hurricane Harvey last year was due in large part to the fact that the community has limited zoning regulations preventing harmful or ill-considered development. You should also support infrastructure initiatives to install back flow valves in storm drains so that these drains do not become a way for flood waters to reach neighborhoods that are distant from the shore by means of reverse flow. These valves have the potential to prevent large amounts of damage to private property.

The last effort to prevent damage from floods is the hardest of all, which is to slow and reverse global warming. The water level in Narragansett Bay has risen more than one foot over the last 50 years, and the next 50 could see an acceleration of that rate, with estimates of future water rise ranging from three to five feet.

According to an article last month in the Providence Business News, at current expectations, the number of Newport homes that would be damaged by a hurricane similar to Hurricane Carol in 1958 would rise from the current level of 5.5 percent to 12.1 percent by 2050. Other communities, like Warren, would be affected even worse, with expected damage levels rising from 28.6 to 36.9 percent.

According to the story, it is not just the cost and danger of flooding that we should be worried about, but the increased likelihood that businesses and homes will be abandoned after a flood event, said Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

The population of New Orleans fell 50 percent in the year after Hurricane Katrina, and more than onequarter of the population of Puerto Rico had no electricity, four months after it was struck by Hurricane Maria. The adverse effects of a storm will have a major impact long after the visible damage is cleaned up.

Critics of global warming claim that weaning ourselves off the fossil fuels that are increasing carbon dioxide might cost billions. Scientists and economists point out that not changing the current course will cost trillions in repairs. Anything you can do to decrease your personal carbon footprint will pay dividends, particularly if larger projects to find alternative energy resources and taxing carbon output are successful.

Ultimately, there is no better path forward than to be informed and prepared. The future of your home, the community and the economy are on the line.

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