Welfare for the rich? In R.I., Feds probably will pay people to elevate coastal houses

By TIM FAULKNER for ecoRI News 

Homes and business across the southern shore of Rhode Island will likely be offered money to elevate their houses and buildings to protect against sea-level rise and flooding from coastal storms.

In all, 341 structures between Westerly and Narragansett were identified by the Army Corps of Engineers for its fortification program. The study concluded that buying out or moving the buildings was too expensive to warrant funding.

“It’s not cheap to pick up a house and move it,” said Christopher Hatfield, project manager for the Army Corps office in Concord, Mass.

Grover Fugate, executive director of the  Rhode Island Coastal Management Council (CRMC), said the Army Corps estimates on sea-level rise are too conservative and therefore wants more buildings to qualify for the adaptation program.

“We believe there could be more houses eligible for that project,” Fugate said.

The Army Corps estimates that sea level will rise 4.44 inches in the next 50 years. Fugate defers to the more recent estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of 2 feet by 2050 and up to 7 feet by 2100.

Hatfield said time constraints of about 18 months prevented the study from using more recent data on sea-level rise.

“We went with what we had and did the best modeling we could and that’s what your seeing in the report,” Hatfield said.

Fugate said the project is nonetheless warranted because, “it will obviously improve the survivability of those structures ... it will reduce their flood insurance.”

Flood insurance rates, he said, are expected to rise significantly, as the federal program reduces its subsidies. Fugate said he has been working with Gov. Gina Raimondo to help lower local flood-insurance costs in the state.

The public is being asked to provide feedback on the program through Nov. 21. Property owners along the 28-mile stretch of shoreline must reach out to the Army Corps to find out if they own one of the targeted buildings. If so, and the program is approved, the Army Corps will offer to pay 65 percent of the cost to elevate the home or building. The property owner must pay the remaining 35 percent. Participation is voluntary. Fugate said the state may offer no-interest or low-interest loans to help property owners pay their share.

Most of the targeted Rhode Island structures are homes. Depending on the location, the building will be elevated between 12 and 18 feet. An additional 46 at-risk buildings, mostly commercial structures, aren't suited for elevation but will be eligible for other flood-protection measures, according to the Army Corps. Tide walls and flood gates were considered for parts of Westerly and Narragansett, but were deemed too costly.

The CRMC was one of 15 Rhode Island agencies and environmental groups to coordinate with the Army Corps on the study. The study’s $800,000 cost was funded through the federal Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 for Hurricane Sandy impacts. A more detailed study from the Army Corps will examine other issues such as what happens to the septic systems of the homes being elevated, according to CRMC.

The Army Corps examined 4,000 properties, valued at $600 million, along the shoreline in Washington County. The cost to elevate the 341 structures is estimated at $58 million.

The large-scale coastal threat adaptation program is one of the first of its kind in the country. Similar studies are underway in Virginia and Maryland. Some 2,500 homes affected by Hurricane Katrina are undergoing similar construction projects.

Buildings on Narragansett Bay may also be considered for a future project, but Hatfield said the result might be different because the southern region has a higher risk of erosion from storms and sea-level rise.

“It doesn’t mean we’ll end up with the same recommendations," he said. "These communities are very different than those along the south coast."

Unless there is public demand, there are no plans for hearings on the proposal. Any feedback or questions should go to Christopher Hatfield, of the Army Corps New England District, via e-mail at cenae-ep@usace.army.mil or by calling 978-318-8520.