Even elementary students know a D+ is barely above failing. Unfortunately, that is the grade the American Society of Civil Engineers gave to U.S. infrastructure this year. This indicates our roads and highways and drinking and wastewater systems are in trouble, particularly along coastlines where they face rising seas, storm surges, and extreme weather events. Senators Tom Carper (DE, Ranking Member on Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI, Co-Chair of Senate Oceans Caucus) understand these threats well in their home states, and on an appropriately stormy day, they hosted a roundtable with coastal experts to discuss these issues and the aid and mitigation role the federal government can play.
For Ranking Member Carper, coastal infrastructure is a top priority. Four out of five Americans live within 60 miles of the ocean (and two out of five directly on the coast), and these communities contribute $6.5 trillion to the national gross domestic product. Senator Whitehouse agreed that the nation as a whole needs to “support our enormous coastal economy,” which Ranking Member Carper commented can be impacted by a single hurricane or nor’easter that demolishes a hotel along the shoreline.
Senator Whitehouse shared how rising seas will impact his home state, pointing to new floodplain maps that indicate 10 feet of sea level rise will make Rhode Island spawn new archipelagos as land bridges are submerged. This will also create new areas vulnerable to storm surge, which in turn “will be uninsurable, unmortgage-able, and unsellable.” The cause, he claimed, is not just sea level rise from melting glaciers and ice but also from the thermal expansion as the ocean warms across the globe.
In planning for the future, Mr. Grover Fugate (Executive Director, Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council) focuses his work on design standards and how they interact with coastal hazards. He explained how tools such as the Coastal Environmental Risk Index (CERI) can be used to accurately and quantitatively asses risk to specific structures, providing “the ability to forecast our future without having to actually experience it.” He also asserted that some threats are not commonly considered, such as groundwater tables rising and bulging in response to higher sea levels – damaging roads and airports inland. Mr. Jeffrey Diehl (Executive Director, Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank) stressed the need to invest in resiliency. His organization is bringing together stakeholders across the state to strengthen infrastructure against rising seas and storms. The threats, he remarked, can sometimes be viewed as opportunities for economic growth and developing resiliency, such as opening a new restaurant built to withstand heavy storms.
In terms of the role of the federal government, Ranking Member Carper advised, “We must do for the people what they cannot do themselves.” Mr. Fugate postulated small municipalities that have not been hit by major weather events recently may be unprepared to deal with an extreme storm. Mr. Tony Pratt (Administrator, Shoreline and Waterway Management Section, Delaware Department of Environment and Natural Resources) has observed a disconnect between local and federal aid and believes the paradigm needs to change so federal aid is not a last-ditch effort for communities in need.
The speakers all agreed that this is an issue of national interest. Mr. Fugate stated, “The coast is under threat” in most of the U.S., and when asked if there was any state immune to the concerns of the roundtable, the panelists were silent. Mr. Pratt echoed that risk is universal, with tsunamis on the west coast and increased riverine flooding for inland states. “‘Coast’ is not just sea coast,” added Mr. Diehl.