Battle With The Sea: In Westerly, Beach Town Still Shoring Up For Future Storms

Dec 4, 2014

Within four years, the town of Westerly experienced four major storms: the Great Flood of 2010, Hurricane Irene in 2011, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the February 2013 Nor’easter. Like many coastal cities and towns around the state, Westerly is also vulnerable to high tides that flood roads even without storms.

As part of our new ongoing series we’re calling “Battle With The Sea,” Rhode Island Public Radio’s environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza looks at how the town of Westerly is wrestling to shore up homes and businesses for future climate change threats.

Standing below the tree shade, Tom Retano looks on at the progress of elevating his Misquamicut house.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

Tom Retano lives in Connecticut, but has been summering in Misquamicut ever since he met his wife, who has roots in Westerly. The small three-bedroom house they bought from her family in Misquamicut sits right next to a water channel that connects the neighboring Winnepaug Pond to the Atlantic Ocean. 

On this day, his house is temporarily elevated on red stilts and wooden pillars. He walks by the open dirt lot where the original foundation used to be, then heads towards his house now standing in the back yard.

“And we’re walking across some of the excavated material and some of what’s left of the old concrete porch,” Retano said. “We’ll climb the ladder if we can do that. We’re up about—oh—four feet from the original foundation.”

As he steps into his living room, he describes the damage Superstorm Sandy did to his house.

“We had water up to the outlets—about 17 inches of water inside,” he said.

The storm destroyed the first floor. Retano had to rip out the floors and walls, put new insulation, and replace his electrical system. His back deck washed away and disappeared.

“Hopefully, never again.”

Never again, he hopes, because he is one of eight Misquamicut area homeowners who are elevating their homes with a federal grant that covers most of the cost to raise their homes. His house will be 15 feet above sea level.

Retano's house will have a new re-enforced foundation that will rest atop tall, thick concrete columns secured with stainless steel connectors. He believes doing this will keep it out of harm’s way during future storms. He’s pleased with the work so far.

“It’s a very unique kind of a thing to be able to lift the house and move it … 11 or 12 or 13 feet up in the air and then on to concrete columns that will be poured and cured,” Retano said. “[It’s] difficult [work].”

Decisions about how to rebuild and adapt are also difficult. People will sometimes ask why rebuild given Misquamicut's long-known vulnerability to storms. 

"Even though you may not be in a flood zone today, 20 years from now, you may be," Grover Fugate.

“It’s much easier for someone to say just move—for our case—just move Atlantic Avenue, take those businesses and move them back,” said Amy Grzybowski, the town’s director of planning, and code enforcement and grant administration. “It’s easy to suggest that, but for a town, that’s where our tax base is. We have those houses. We have those businesses. And that helps run the community. And if we lose that tourism industry, we lose a lot of what we bring in, in order to support the town.”

The town is trying to straddle the line between protecting commerce and protecting against the real effects of climate change that they live with every day. The town planner wants to check out properties away from the water. That way beach-front businesses have somewhere to go in case they have to re-locate in the future. 

The bottom line about rebuilding comes down to whether people have enough information to accurately assess their risk, said Grover Fugate, the executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council. Even anticipating where risk will be is a moving target. 

“You always have sea level rise,” said Fugate. “And sea level rise will allow the storms to act upon the structures higher, and they will also allow the storm to penetrate further. So even though you may not be in a flood zone today, 20 years from now, you may be.”

Misquamicut lost about 90 feet of shoreline between 1939 and 2004. The CRMC has put together a guide for coastal property owners that lays out what they need to know about living or building along the water. 

Town officials have also been proactive about applying for grants to not only raise houses, but also remove homes and businesses next to the Pawcatuck River, which flooded in 2010.

Global Green, USA conducted a neighborhood assessment of Misquamicut, funded through a grant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The consultants walked through Misquamicut's business district to learn from town officials, businesses, and residents how they envision Misquamicut in the future in light of climate change.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

They hosted a group of outside consultants to look at more ways to protect Misquamicut’s economy (Westerly was a recipient of an Environmental Protection Agency grant that made Global Green workshop possible). The town wants to protect it from the rising open sea it faces and the storms that will inevitably strike again.   

“We’re here very specifically to talk about sustainability,” said Jessica Millman at the town beach’s pavilion. “[To look at] ways to rebuild, the way to grow and be successful, but to do it in the most sustainable way.”

As they walk through the main street, Atlantic Avenue, town officials and residents show the visitors different spots where the town has repeatedly experienced devastation by hurricanes and superstorms.

“So obviously a hundred years ago if they knew what we know now, they wouldn’t have allowed this stuff to be built, but we are built,” said Caswell Cooke, outgoing town councilor, who said town has to consider local jobs. 

"One business down there, Patty’s, employs 100 people in the summer. So what do you do? We’re looking at things like: How do you nourish the beach? How do you have a maintenance plan to keep things as best as you can keep them to keep the economy rolling? The big factor is the economy. Otherwise, yeah, you can abandon everything and leave, but we are not going to do that."

Cooke said the town is trying to lead by example. The town decided not to rebuild some structures on the beach that were wiped out by Superstorm Sandy and rebuild dunes instead. 

Businesses are also leading the way, like the Andrea Hotel. Superstorm Sandy clobbered it. And instead of completely rebuilding, the owner has set up a large sturdy tent for the hotel’s restaurant. The owner of Sam’s Snack Bar replaced his business with a mobile trailer, so that when a major storm is on the way he can pack up and go.

But threats to Misquamicut aren’t limited to storms. Save the Bay’s David Prescott notes the roads in Misquamicut are frequently flooded, even on calm, sunny days.

“We have the oldest tide gauge in the country and we’ve seen about 10 inches of sea level rise [since 1930].”

Rapidly rising seas are pushing beyond the beach into Winnepaug Pond and its marshes. That rising water affects Atlantic Avenue.

“So almost every single high tide, you’re getting water on that road, not from rain—it could be dry for three weeks,” said Prescott. “And you’re like, ‘Where’s this coming from?’ It’s coming from the marsh. So it’s pushing everything up.”

Prescott points to the main business district near the pond.

“And that’s the problem down there,” he said.  “You have no place for that water to go. You have absolutely no place.” 

Save the Bay has been working on a project to improve poor drainage areas in Winnepaug Pond. And with the help of another grant, the town plans to eventually remove the beach sand and debris Superstorm Sandy dumped into it.

Tom Retano's Misquamicut house has been elevated 15 feet above sea level. Work on the house will continue through spring
Credit Photo Courtesy of Tom Retano

Town officials believe restoring the pond will attract more wildlife and improve the pond’s ability to manage water from the ocean. A healthy, vibrant pond could be key for Misquamicut’s future, as it offers an opportunity to build an ecotourism industry.

Tom Retano has no doubt another Sandy-like storm will sweep through the area again. He expects his elevated, re-enforced home to sustain those future storms. He’s repairing and elevating it, so he can retire here.  

“And the way I look it, it’s for my children. It’s for the future generations,” he said. “Hopefully, someone in the family will keep this property.”

Retano says Misquamicut is as beautiful as it can be treacherous, but that doesn’t scare him away. He loves it here, and the risk is worth it. He hopes his house will be ready by next spring after more than two years of work.

This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources.

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