Projo Opinion | Echoes of Ida Need to Spur Action

It’s June 1 and we’re worried. The official start of the hurricane season brings vivid echoes of last year’s experience in states just to our west.

In August, Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc from Louisiana to the northeast and cost more than $60 billion in damages. And Ida was just one of 20 US weather-related events that cost over a billion dollars in 2021.

It was not just property damage. In our regional alone, Ida’s mere remnants killed more than 40 people in flooding across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. But for a turn to the left, it would have been Providence residents dying in their flooded basement apartments instead of New Yorkers.

Every week, we are seeing headlines about severe weather impacts across the country and globe. Extreme temperatures and precipitation, storm surge and other unprecedented weather patterns are becoming routine news. The costs – human and property – just keep rising.

Is Providence ready for a direct hit by a major hurricane or 6-12 inches of rainfall in a matter of hours? The honest answer is we do not know.

That is why the Providence Resilience Partnership is partnering with city and state policymakers, community groups, businesses, and others to build “Climate Ready Providence.” We need to fully understand our risk, then build and implement a climate resilience roadmap to ensure all our citizens are ready for what’s coming. We need data. We need to prioritize. We need a plan.

Our report on flooding risk drew three key conclusions:

  • Comprehensive planning and engagement are critical to align different communities and interest groups around an integrated city-wide resilience plan.
  • We need to approach our water management holistically — the reality is water (drinking, waste, storm) is a single system.
  • Finally, we need a single, predictive, future-looking flood model to help us prioritize, fund and design infrastructure projects that will protect the city.

Catastrophic flooding is terrifying, as Rhode Island learned in 2010. Parts of our state were crippled, roads were destroyed, and businesses closed for months. Homes were damaged, in some cases beyond repair. Countless households lost furniture clothing,
vehicles, and family mementos. We weren’t prepared. And we need to be.

As a coastal city, flooding is perhaps the greatest climate risk that Providence faces, but it is not the only one. Extreme heat – and we’ve already flirted with 90 degrees this year – causes a myriad of health impacts. We are vulnerable to high winds, hail, lightening and other manifestations of violent weather. Sea level rise slowly, relentlessly, threatens our waterfront areas and those systems connected to them.

Every conceivable effort must be put towards reducing carbon emissions and stabilizing the climate, but through at least 2050, warming and rising oceans, and hotter air temperatures will be the norm.  

Providence has enormous capacity to address these problems. Important foundational work, including the city’s Hazard Mitigation Plan and Climate Justice Plan, has already been done. We have the skills, experience and passion to adapt and thrive in the new climate reality we are facing. We can’t stop hurricanes, overheated days or rain by the bucketful, but we can understand what our risks are, plan strategically and help each other prepare.

It will take a collective community effort to fully understand the vulnerability of our city, and effectively address our structural, economic, health and social impacts. We need everyone’s best thinking in that work. But we cannot wait. Hurricane Ida was a clear warning. Join us to help Build Climate Ready Providence, so the start of the hurricane season becomes just one more day in the year.

Buff Chace is the founder of Cornish Associates in downtown Providence and the chairman of the Providence Resilience Partnership (PRP). Michele Jalbert is executive director of PRP.