ProJo: With seas rising, study will ask — is Providence’s hurricane barrier up to the task?

PROVIDENCE — When it was dedicated in 1966, the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier was considered a paragon of design.

And in the nearly six decades since, it has done its job well, protecting downtown Providence from flooding caused by wind-driven storm surges. 

But as seas have risen and storm patterns have changed, experts have questioned whether the barrier built across the Providence River is still up to the task of shielding the city from extreme weather

With a $1-million budget allocation earmarked for a first-of-its-kind study of the barrier, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is set to answer the questions about the structure’s future. 

The money was secured through Rhode Island’s own U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who has long called for an assessment of the barrier in light of the impacts of climate change, in concert with the Providence Resilience Partnership, a nonprofit formed two years ago to advocate for climate protection in Rhode Island’s capital city. 

“The barrier is key to our capital city’s defense against sea level rise and storm surges, and we need to assess if it’s adequate in light of worsening climate threats,” said Whitehouse, who as a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has oversight of the Army Corps budget. “I expect the Army Corps to get this done in good time to help Providence prepare for its future.” 

Weather now is much different than when the hurricane barrier was built

The hurricane barrier was built between 1960 and 1966. Its centerpiece is a dam, which stands 25 feet tall and extends 700 feet across the river, and has three gates on its east end that stand open but are ready to be lowered when a storm surge is expected.  

Flanking each side of the barrier are retaining walls and dikes that extend 780 feet to the east, toward India Point Park, and 1,400 feet to the west, along Allens Avenue. In five places where roads cut through them are gates that can be closed. Underground, there are another five gates to prevent water from backing up in the sewer system. 

A study by engineering students at the University of Rhode Island concluded that a portion of the dike on Allens Avenue may be the most vulnerable part of the barrier system.  

In a 2021 report on Providence’s climate vulnerabilities, the Providence Resilience Partnership called on the Army Corps to take a closer look at the barrier. 

“The conditions today and looking ahead are fundamentally different from the assumptions used in the 1960s,” said Michele Jalbert, executive director of the partnership. “The weather is changing too dramatically, too quickly and we don’t fully understand its potential impact.” 

Providence Mayor Brett Smiley said the study is necessary. 

“As Mayor, I am committed to building one of the best run cities in America,” he said. “And that requires making investments in our infrastructure that can better serve our residents and helps us fight back the impacts of climate change.”

Written by: Alex Kuffner