Rhode Island Disaster Preparedness – Part I

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The number of weather phenomena with a devastating potential has increased markedly in the last two decades – and Rhode Island is not immune to that trend

This is the first part of a two-article series on the risk related to natural disasters in Rhode Island. Check back soon for the second part.

The Pandemonium of the Late Summer of 2017

With three powerful hurricanes and two major earthquakes wreaking havoc within, or in close proximity to, the U.S. borders, the last couple of weeks made hundreds of thousands of American citizens live through the scenes that they may have previously known only from disaster movies. The total number of people affected by the three hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. coastal areas in late August and throughout September – Harvey, Irma, and Maria – is still being evaluated. In Texas, Hurricane Harvey displaced more than 1 million people and destroyed about 200,000 houses. Last month, Texas governor Greg Abbott estimated that the total reconstruction costs could reach $180 billion, which would make it the costliest hurricane in the U.S. history. After Hurricane Irma hit Florida, millions of people were left without electricity or cellular network coverage for days. Before hitting the U.S. mainland, the same hurricane caused an estimated $1 billion in damages in Puerto Rico. The residents of Puerto Rico were further affected by Hurricane Maria which made landfall on the island on Wednesday, September 20. Hurricane Maria was the second Category 5 storm in the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season and it completely destroyed Puerto Rico’s already damaged power grid, leaving 3.4 million residents without electricity.

Climate scientists believe that the destructive power and intensity of the recent storms was made worse due to climate change, even though the storms themselves weren’t caused or related to global warming. Still, a growing body of evidence suggests that natural phenomena such as storms, hurricanes, and floods caused by heavy rainfalls are going to get more intense and more destructive due to factors such as hotter oceans and rising seas. In fact, some scientists have been touting warning messages about a close relationship between global warming and growing power of natural disasters for years. Now, the damage caused by the unusually powerful hurricanes of August and September seems to be driving the message home for many American citizens. According to a recent poll conducted jointly by The Washington Post and ABC News, a “majority of Americans say that global climate change contributed to the severity of recent hurricanes in Florida and Texas”.

Regardless of the opinions on what causes natural disasters to be more frequent and more powerful, the trend seems to be real. This means there is a risk that in the coming years, more and more Americans will be affected by potentially life-threatening situations caused by natural phenomena. The importance of being prepared – having the needed emergency resources and an action plan for when a disaster does strike – cannot be overestimated. That’s why this and our next blog post will offer a closer look at the potential dangers Rhode Islanders can be exposed to relating to natural disasters. In the two-article series, we will take a historical perspective, trying to learn from past emergencies about future risks. We will also provide practical suggestions on what to do if – or when – disaster strikes New England’s shores.

Storms and Hurricanes

If the words “natural disaster” are mentioned to a Rhode Island resident, it is likely that their first association will be the most recent one – the 2012 Hurricane Sandy. This Category 2 hurricane affected 8 countries and battered 24 US states, causing the loss of more than 200 hundred lives. At the time, it was classified as the second-costliest in U.S. history. The storm caused more than 100,000 power outages in the State of Rhode Island and serious property damage. Thankfully, though, no loss of lives was reported within the state.

Just in the last 17 years, New England has been affected by at least 16 named tropical storms and 20 named hurricanes. In comparison, during the whole 20th century, only 16 named hurricanes were reported to have swept over New England. Nevertheless, it was one of those storms that happened in the first part of the 20th century that remains one of the most devastating. It was the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.

The storm made landfall on September 21, 1938, on Long Island as a Category 3 hurricane. Modern-day estimates set the number of fatal victims of the storm between 500 and 700. More than 57,000 homes were destroyed and the total property damage is estimated at $4.7 billion in today’s dollars. The storm surge – the sudden, rolling swell of the sea – caused by the hurricane has been estimated at up to 16-feet above sea level. The surge was so powerful that it entered downtown Providence, RI, with the level of water measured at 13.9 feet above sea level. At least 100 people were killed when the storm surge hit Westerly, RI. According to research conducted in recent years, the 1938 hurricane was unusually violent and intense – in fact, the investigation concluded that events of similar magnitude and scale happen in this region once in about 400 years.

In the next week’s article, we will consider two other examples of catastrophic events that happened in Rhode Island in the previous century. We will also offer some practical suggestions on how to be prepared and how to act when a disaster strikes.