By REGINA DeANGELO/ecoRI News contributor
Water surrounds Pam Rubinoff. She was born next to it on Long Island Sound. She was immersed in it watching Jacques Cousteau on TV. She has traveled the world to study its rivers and mangrove swamps. She has controlled, dammed and diverted it. And now, having landed on the coast of Rhode Island, she finds herself protecting people from it.
As a coastal resilience specialist at the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center, Rubinoff and her team build resilience to and awareness of coastal hazards — how to manage development and behavior, and how to reduce risks to the coast and its people.
She works with landscape architects, engineers, social scientists and nonprofits to help them prepare for hurricanes, rising seas and 100-year storms. She links people and entities who normally don’t tend to collaborate, such as builders with regulators, or town planning boards with universities.
“My skill is understanding the connection between the physical and policy realms,” Rubinoff said.
Her office brings scientific data from out of the ivory tower and into town councils and business associations. Rubinoff is a member of South Kingstown’s planning board, where she applies practical advice on climate resilience.
She arrived in the field of coastal management as an engineer, but it wasn’t her first choice of study.
“I wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau,” Rubinoff said. “But I was not good at memorizing names of phyla and species. So when my older sister came home from URI as an undergrad, she’d said, ‘Well, you’re good at math ... why not go into ocean engineering?’ and I thought, ‘OK, yeah!‘ So I went to the coast through engineering.”
In 1976 she graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Delaware, one of only four women engineers out of 100 in her graduating class. She went to work for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Coastal Engineering Division designing beach-nourishment projects. After a few years, wanting “something more hands-on,” she joined the Peace Corps to work on water-resource projects in Thailand.
One of her big projects was a spillway — a small dam designed to relieve flooding. It was there, in a village in Nakhon Nayok province, “Where I really understood what it was to do engineering.”
There was the Thai culture and Thai language to learn, but Rubinoff thought, “This will be easy ... because I’m an engineer, and I can use numbers.” But even the numbers were something different. “They use Hindu-Arabic symbols, not Arabic numerals. I was like, ‘Oh… shoot.’”
There were other workplace challenges she didn’t anticipate. One day Rubinoff arrived at the site to find an elephant standing in the river, pulling out tree trunks. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. Now what do I do? I have an elephant on staff.’”
Rubinoff’s Thai colleagues, all men, didn’t have a problem with her being the only woman engineer on the project. Her boss, however, wasn’t ready to accept an American woman riding a motorcycle. It took a visit from Rubinoff’s Peace Corps program director to convince him that she would drive a motorcycle to and from work just like everyone else.
Like most Peace Corps volunteers, she turned her projects into community enterprises. In building the spillway, she corralled aquaculture and fisheries professionals to use the new reservoir that would water the crops and raise fish nearby.
“The spillway was not just water control, but a bridge for people to get back and forth on,” Rubinoff said. “We brought in agricultural people so they could do irrigation. That was my thing, not just the engineering, but a community development project. Peace Corps was really where my other talents came out. Not necessarily building things, but bringing people together.”
After two years in the Peace Corps and a stint back at the Army Corps, Rubinoff arrived in Rhode Island to attend URI for marine policy. The marine affairs master’s program centered on what local communities can do to protect their coast, and how the coast can accommodate issues such as sea-level rise. That was in 1988, when the first worldwide climate-change programs were starting.
“Back when we were allowed to talk about climate change,” she said.
In 1996 she was invited to URI’s Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant , where she became a coastal management specialist. Her job has taken her to Mexico, Ecuador, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Ghana and Cuba, and to the Ocean State’s 21 coastal communities, where she collaborates with others on shoreline management. It was during one of those overseas trips that she found herself back in a familiar place for the first time in 20 years.
In 2006, two years after the Indian Ocean earthquake triggered cataclysmic tsunamis across Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, Rubinoff traveled with the Coastal Resources Center and URI students to Thailand, to teach people how to build resilience into site planning, and how to prepare a village for evacuation.
During the trip she found herself back in Nakhon Nayok. She went for a walk and realized that the river she was walking alongside was the same river on which she had helped build the spillway 22 years earlier.
“My eyes filled with tears,” she recalled. “I realized that Peace Corps was just the beginning, the seed of how I could help people, help the world, and 20 years later, I’m bringing students back and practicing with them.”
Rubinoff now does most of her coastal resilience work at home in Rhode Island. One of the Coastal Resources Center’s current projects, called PREP RI, is an online video series that trains officials and volunteer boards to plan for intensifying storms fueled by climate change. The videos, which are free (and interesting) to watch, explain the science behind community planning and storm preparedness.
Another program has residents taking shoreline pictures to document changes over time.
“The Newport tide gauge shows how our seas are rising,” Rubinoff said, “but people don’t believe it. They’ll believe it when they see it.”
She said people, at least in Rhode Island, are much more aware of climate change than they were 25 years ago when Rubinoff’s career began.
“People think we’re not making changes fast enough, but you can see a change occurring,” she said. “There’s a lot of support, especially now, with the federal government backing off. And the foundation is the science.”