PROVIDENCE once led the nation in hurricane protection.
But in the half-century since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, the $14 million project has lost its luster.
The metal has corroded, the steel scratched and beaten down. But the gates, pipes and valves of the structure itself aren’t the biggest problem.
Rather, it’s the water beneath it, which continues to creep higher and higher, threatening to make the once-revolutionary system obsolete.
“The Dutch aren’t building any more tide gates and hurricane barriers,” said H. Curtis Spalding, a former regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency who now serves as a senior adviser to a local environmental group known as the Providence Resilience Partnership. “The people who are most advanced in the world at this kind of work have kind of moved away from those types of protections.”
That’s not to say that the 3,000-foot-long tidal barrier hasn’t served a purpose. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates it has prevented more than $3 million in damage as of 2017.
Designed in the aftermath of the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane, the barrier was built to withstand storm surge of up to 22 feet – typically associated with a Category 3 hurricane. So far, it’s never faced worse, but as sea levels rise and storms intensify amid a warming climate, the risk grows.
The Providence Resilience Partnership in a February 2021 report recommended some short-term fixes to improve the barrier’s effectiveness, such as moving the backup generator higher from the water level.
Looking long-term, the group also hinted at a bigger overhaul – or even a new hurricane barrier – as a potential solution.
The Providence Emergency Management Agency in its own 2020 report also concluded that the groups involved in the hurricane barrier’s maintenance and operations should consider a new barrier – with a 2050 deadline to make the call. Thirty years might seem far off, but without much of the critical information about how increased flooding affects the city’s aging infrastructure – not just the barrier but its roads, bridges and sewer systems – the Providence Resilience Partnership is looking to start a more detailed study of the city’s climate readiness by the end of this year, says Michele Jalbert, the partnership’s executive director.
Raymond P. Daddazio, a fellow with the American Society of Civil Engineers, also stressed the importance of a holistic approach to engineering hurricane protections.
“There’s no magic bullet that will solve all the problems,” said Daddazio, who also serves as a senior consultant for engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti. “Even a permanent structure like a river barrier is finite in length. You have to think about what happens on the other side of the river, where the water goes, or where the barrier ends.”
There are, however, some issues that need immediate attention. The city is preparing to spend $3 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to repair and replace certain landlocked components of the barrier; the river gates themselves, and anything in the water is under the domain of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has spent $20 million on its own waterside maintenance over the last decade.
Among the most pressing repairs from the city’s point of view is the failing hydraulic system that operates the sewer valve below Allens Avenue. It’s not exactly a headline-worthy project but an important one to prevent gallons of sewage-contaminated water from spilling out into city streets, said Craig Hochman, the city’s chief engineer.
When the river gates close, the Narragansett Bay Commission also closes the valves to its combined sewer system to prevent the river water, which shares the same pipes, from flooding the system. But the pressure-powered valve closure underneath Allens Avenue doesn’t work, forcing a crew to manually close the valves when a storm is anticipated, and reopen it later, Hochman said.
Hochman chalked up the failing hydraulics to age – it probably hasn’t been replaced since it was installed 50 years ago. Aside from the standard wear and tear typical of any structure, the barrier itself remains in good condition, says Margaret Goulet, director of operations and maintenance for the Narragansett Bay Commission.
Goulet sees value in the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier’s simplicity.
“The things that last and stand the test of time are the ones that are the most basic,” she said. “We could spend so much money on all of these complex systems and new technologies, but with climate change, so much is uncertain.”
Daddazio also suggested ways to supplement, rather than replace, the hurricane barrier by making the entire city more flood-proof: stormwater basins, buildings with roofs made to absorb excess rainwater, and above-ground electrical systems.
“The key thing that makes any city resilient is how fast it can come back to normal after a flood,” he said.
Nancy Lavin -7/21/2022