Protecting Historic Structures and Cultural Treasures From Rising Waters No Easy Task

By PEARL MACEK/ecoRI News contributor

NEWPORT, R.I. — “We can’t stop it anymore,” said John Englander, an oceanographer and sea-level-rise consultant. “Everybody is struggling with this.” Englander, who wrote a book titled “High Tide on Main Street,” was just one of the 52 speakers at the recent “Keeping History Above Water” conference held at the Marriott.

Experts in city planning, architecture, historical preservation and climate change gathered for the four-day event to talk about sea-level rise, coastal flooding and their combined impact on coastal communities, specifically those with historical structures.

Organizations and universities from across Rhode Island, such as the Newport Restoration Foundation, helped organize and sponsor the event. Experts came from countries, including Iran, Scotland and the Netherlands, and from cities throughout the United States, spoke about their experiences with climate change, coastal flooding and historical preservation.

The main focus of the conference was deciding ways to preserve historical buildings from rising waters, but the overarching theme was much larger: sea-level rise and what that means for anyone living near the ocean or along tidal rivers.

John Englander

John Englander

Englander said sea-level rise is a problem that won’t be going away anytime soon. He said that although building seawalls, subsidizing flood insurance and restoring beaches are ways of mitigating sea-level rise in the short term, we need to realize that whole coastlines will change drastically and more or less permanently in the not-too-distant future.

“Technology is not going to stop the ocean from rising,” he said.

The Newport Restoration Foundation, which operates 78 historic buildings, has found itself in recent years more frequently facing flooding in some of its buildings. One building in particular inspired the recent conference: 74 Bridge St., also known as the Christopher Townsend House. The historic structure in Newport’s Point neighborhood sits just above the 4-foot elevation mark and is two blocks inland. It’s subject to daily groundwater flooding, which is exacerbated by tidal flooding and storm surge.

Earlier this year, Melissa Barker, Newport’s geographic information system’s (GIS) coordinator presented at the Statehouse her findings regarding historic buildings in Rhode Island and how many are in coastal floodplains according to the most current FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM). According to Barker’s research, 21 of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities have historic assets in coastal floodplains, with Newport having 968 historic structures currently in danger of flooding. Barker’s research didn’t event take into consideration sea-level rise.

Last year, Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, who attended this month’s conference, sponsored the creation of a commission that looked at the impact of sea-level rise on Rhode Island. The commission looked at Westerly, the Port of Providence and Newport specifically. Carson presented some of the commission’s findings at a conference workshop, but the actual report is expected to be published in the coming weeks.

Carson said Rhode Island planning and zoning boards, and real-estate agents, must be trained in and informed about sea-level rise. “We need more dissemination of information,” she said.

Marquetta Goodwine

Marquetta Goodwine

Another conference speaker was Marquetta Goodwine, known by the Gullah/Geechee people as Queen Quet. The Gullah/Geechee nation is a people descended from African slaves who have lived along the coast and barrier islands of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas for the past 400 years. She spoke about the Gullah/Geechee people’s relationship with the waters that surround them. “How do we quantify cultural assets?” Goodwine asked.

I asked her in an e-mail later that day what she meant by that. Her response: “From what I am seeing and hearing thus far, it appears that the U.S. is more focused on cities, urban areas, and affluent areas because they are not ‘calculating’ cultural value. They are focused primarily on areas where the real estate totals have the highest value and they see that as the areas of greatest loss if the water covers these. However, I beg to differ because buildings can be rebuilt and cultural communities cannot.”

At the conference, Goodwine spoke about projects that she has helped organize, such as replanting oyster beds and marshlands along the coastline of the Gullah/Geechee heritage corridor. For her, the Gullah/Geechee people will stay where they are for as long as they can.

“We can’t all pick up and move,” she said. According to Goodwine, the answer for the survival of the Gullah/Geechee people lies in adapting to an ever-changing land and seascape. Something she believes her people can and will continue to do.

The four-day conference ended with a series of workshops, including one lead by Roderick and Louisette Scott. Roderick is a flood-hazard-mitigation expert in Mandeville, La., where he runs L&R Resources LLC, a flood-hazard-mitigation company that assists in the elevation and relocation of properties, especially historic ones. Louisette is the director of the Department of Planning and Development for the city of Mandeville.

The couple spoke about their experiences both before and after flood mitigation became an important part of city planning. Mandeville sits on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and was badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but, according to Louisette, flood mitigation and planning has since improved dramatically and the results are telling.

When Hurricane Isaac hit Louisiana in 2012, there was far less damage thanks to the incorporation of flood mitigation into city planning.

“It’s imperative that planners and city officials address these issues,” she said.

The conference’s final event was a roundtable discussion titled “What Have We Learned and Where Do We Go From Here?” Science writer and former New York Times editor Cornelia Dean moderated the discussion. Some of the takeaways discussed were that sea-level rise really is a bipartisan issue and should be treated as such, and that community engagement is essential when looking for ways to ensure the survival of coastal communities.