Towards a Resilient Rhode Island:

Responding to climate change with leadership, innovation, and economic development

Climate Change Effects and Hurricane Sandy Story

by James Bruckshaw

Human beings are unique creatures. We possess the basic ability to adapt to any situation that comes our way, yet at the same time, we inherently fear any change that the situation might do to our world. We grow comfortable in the routines that drive our lives like the morning cup of coffee at precisely 7 a.m., the same parking space we pull into every day at work, or the predictable change of seasons. We even sit in the same general location every time we go to a movie theater. These routines give us comfort and a sense of security. When these routines are interrupted, life still goes on, but we eventually have face the change and settle into new routines. Change is not something we always welcome, especially when that change has an impact on our very core values and things we cherish the most.

We as a society are currently faced with a very real and very dramatic shift in the history of our world. This new challenge is linked directly to the escalation and emergence of climate change. Rising ocean tides, an increase in both the intensity and frequency of storm related events, the changing of traditionally predictable weather patterns, and the erosion of our coastline, are all combining to alter a long-standing and traditional way of life in Rhode Island. James put it best that, “Rhode Island is known as the "Ocean State", a moniker that is befitting for the beautiful, serene, and picturesque shoreline that so many of us call home. Still, it appears as if our choice of the nickname, ‘Ocean State’ also carries with it, an ominous and prophetic warning. We are on the cusp of seeing the damage and devastation that climate change appears to have in store for us. In a world where 70% of the planet is covered by water, let's hope that we are not left with a new state moniker of ‘Under The Ocean State’.” He is referring to the threat that rising sea levels and increased storm patters have on Rhode Island’s beautiful coastlines.

James Bruckshaw has seen first hand the aftermath of coastal erosion, wind damage, flooding, and rising tides in both his personal and professional lives. As he explains, “physical damage is the most visceral and photographically provocative impact in the immediate aftermath of climate change weather related events, but the emotional, psychological, and cultural devastation that also occurs, in many cases, lasts well beyond the time it takes to institute repairs, rebuild, and adjust to the loss of property.”

James owns a summer home along the south coast of Rhode Island in a long-standing community known as Roy Carpenter's Beach. The community is comprised of slightly less than 400 small, single family, close-knit cottages. Most of these cottages have been in place for many decades, and they have lasted through countless nor'easters, winter swells, and constant battering of the shoreline. The community started as a campground, which dated back to the early 1930's. Over the ensuing years, tents gradually modified into permanent platforms. They continued to evolve until they became the solidly constructed buildings that they are today. Most of the cottages were built with surplus materials, and few of them have heating or indoor bathrooms. The cottages were constructed within arms length of each other, which makes the word "privacy" something used for more luxurious locations. James explains that, “Neighbors can hear the dropped pan of freshly shucked corn. They can hear the cry of a new baby in the morning, and they can hear the roll of the dice while playing yahtzee on rainy, summer afternoons.” However, despite their lacking to some people in areas of privacy, all of the cottages have extremely close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, and this is what makes the community so special to its residents. This close proximity to the ocean and to each other has lead to neighborly bonds and community interactions that harken back to a historic form of this world. For a more detailed understanding of the community or for the history of this small coastal retreat area, James suggests that, “You can always refer to a publication titled "Not Just A Beach", written and published by the Roy Carpenter's Beach Historical Committee in 2003.”

James’ community has remained solvent since its early days, and as summers fly by, residents will always remember dances, meetings, music, fireworks, and even the parades that have woven themselves into the fabric of the area. James explained that, receiving the "Calendar of Events", which lists the activities planned for the coming summer season, had become a highly anticipated arrival in the mail by many citizens in the area. People who live out of state or children who no longer reside in the community always have special activities to look forward to in the summers thanks to this calendar. Some people even plan their vacations, visits to parents, or work schedules around specific events on the calendar. The calendar typically includes block dances on the beach, a pots and pans parade, magicians for children nights, live bands, fireworks for the Fourth of July, bingo nights, a penny social combined with a cake walk, and even a field day full of activities, races, and prizes. Summer is a highly cherished season for the people in this community.

In order to fully understand the communities’ effects from climate change, it is important to understand the area’s layout and overall way of life. The land of the community is divided in two by a main road that splits down the middle. It divides the community into what is affectionately known by the local people as the "east side" and the "west side". For example, a house numbered as “6 West 11”, stands for the 11th house in, in the sixth row on the West side. This style of division of the properties has created a naturally friendly rivalry between the opposing sides. There are frequently friendly East vs West competitions that can range from softball games to bocce or golf. The central hub of the community has always been The Store. The Store is where residents can get their early morning coffee and candy is dispensed to the watering mouths of countless children. On top of that, the store can be a place for residents to pick up a delicious lunch, or it can be a place where they have mail delivered to or pay their rent. However, these traditional uses of “the store” are changing because “the store” is being forced to constantly move as a result of rising sea levels.

James explains how the community has seen a steady rise in the sea level over the past several decades. Beach erosion, in combination with the constant battering of waves over time, has slowly caused the footings of many buildings in this area to give way to the sea. Currently, The Store sits about 70 feet back from its original location. Back in the 70's, the original building had a basement for storage, a bathhouse for rinsing, and a long walk from its back door to the high tide line on the beach. Unfortunately, the ocean has claimed much of its beachfront as its own. According to James, “It started with the waves gradually destroying the winter beach fencing that for so long provided a buffer zone between the road and the store and the ocean. In the winter, the fencing would extend 20-30 feet into the beachfront property, thus preserving the beach sand from being wind blown and lost.” The beach eroded behind The Store enough that it created a large drop from the deck to the beach. James recalled that many children would jump from it as a test of their bravery. Summers continued to pass, and with each off-season, James and his fellow residents could see the under shoring of The Store slowly get gouged away. He explained that in an effort to save The Store sand was trucked in to fill the increasing drop from the back deck to the beach. Then it happened; the store was no longer stable or able to stay on the edge of the beach. Damage to its foundation was severe, and the use of the building posed a great risk and danger. As a result, the original store was lost, and parts of it were swallowed by the Block Island Sound. The remaining frame was moved back into the "front field". This field was where endless games of football, field day events, frisbee tosses, and kite flying had been done by family and friends for 50 years. This same field once housed an event called the "beer fest", complete with authentic German band music, lederhosen, and smiles. The new store had to be built here.

James knows that the area has, since then, been forever changed. “Cars used to be able to pull up directly to the beach and unload the day's beach wares. The main road once separated the beach dunes from the first rows of cottages. The dunes used to act as a barrier between the homes and the beach, but those same dunes, in just a few short years, themselves were gone.” The ocean slowly crept toward the community every season, perhaps unperceivable to the naked eye. “Only when a solid object stands in her way, do we see the real power and damaging effects of the [sea level] rise. I liken it to seeing our children grow. As parents, we are often oblivious to the leaps and bounds our children take as they grow through the years. Visitors, who have walked away from the daily happenings, see the great strides that we so clearly were blinded to. It's the same with the [sea level] rise, without the comparisons, without observation of the damage, we see the encroachment only as another change.”

James explained to me that soon the road, which once separated the community, was also washed away. The town once saw block parties with hundreds of people dancing the night away on that street. Today, the sea level’s rise has taken over the once paved street. The re-situated community Store, which was at one point 70 feet back from its original location, now empties directly onto the beach, and the waters lap at its steps once again. It appears as if the ground beneath it is slowly giving way to the ever-persistent waves. The field is also no longer the playground for the resident's like it once was. The baseball diamond on the field is also gone. James told stories about how in the past children spent hours in the facility. For decades, the field housed the "East VS West" softball game, which was complete with bases, umpires, a trophy, and a friendly keg of beer, for the adults, donated by the "Ocean Mist”. More and more frequently, waves from the ocean are rushing onto the field during coastal storms, rendering it a muddy mess rather than a solid ground for fun. Memories were made there, and those memories fed into a way of life. However, the baseball field and the field are gone now…flooded beyond use. It now houses geese, ducks, and swans.

Hurricane "Sandy" did her own damage to the area. James recalled that the entire front rows of houses on the East side were "lost" to the rise of the ocean tides during her storm surge. Pieces of wood panels and decks from these homes continued to wash up along the shoreline long after the storm surge subsided. Many of the houses that were not completely washed away, were not salvageable, and those that were deemed unworthy or unsafe for habitation, have been torn down. They were torn down, along with the memories and lives of their inhabitants. The houses that were not so badly damaged are still being moved to safer locations. The moves are costly for the owners, and their repairs are many. James described the common move as being, “way off the beachfront land that they originally acquired. After all, this land is being ripped apart by the rising waters. The houses are being hauled by flatbed back beyond the last cottages on the north end of the property, the land originally used as farmland for potatoes and corn. That land was also going to house the next "baseball field", but those plans are for another day.” He explains that plans within the community first call for more and more houses to be moved. The first row of houses on the West side will need to endure the same fate in the near future unless the rising waters decide to take them before they have a chance to move. Countless pictures of the landscape show the devastation and the effects of this surge.

The damage is quantifiable. What James and his community cannot value is the loss of their cultural ties and bonds that drew their coastal communities together. James best describes the heartache his community felt in the following quote. “Nor can we access the emotional and psychological pains that linger long after the damage has been done, these cannot be calculated. Our culture loses some of its identity each time the sea claims another victim. That sense of security, that understanding of who we are and where we have been, washes away with each surge. We have seen houses lost, recreational lands swallowed, and celebrations canceled because there is no longer room to safely light up the night sky with the wonder and awe. We've seen memories float out to sea, and we have seen a part of our cultural identity disappear under the ever-increasing surf. This does not carry a price tag because this is our identity.”

However, there is another aspect to James’ many experiences. His profession, which is within the safety and health industry, has allowed him to understand human safety and health in the aftermath of destructive forces such as hurricane Sandy. “My role in keeping workers and citizens of Rhode Island from harm has taken me to many locations within the state to observe the damage, train the people attempting to ensure a speedy recovery, and to educate anyone who may be blind-sided by the need to quickly get back on their feet. [People cannot] ignore the process of safely ensuring that injuries and illnesses do not add to the already seemingly insurmountable damage.”

James understands that the recovery of property value is never worth injury or death to a human. “Death is not the price to pay for a business to re-open, yet my profession takes to places where I see people taking risks for the sake of rapid recovery.” James described a grim scenario he witnessed in the wake of the devastation caused by hurricane Sandy. “In the early morning, I ventured to the coastline to observe first hand the damage done. I drove into Roy Carpenter's Beach, which had just hours before been evacuated. My first act of business was to check on the house that has been in my family since the 1940's, and then to check on each of my neighbors’ homes, hoping to find them still standing and with little or no damage. Fortunately, most of the homes were spared any real damage. My cottage needed siding, shingles, and trim work, but the structure and its integrity remained intact. However, those in the front row suffered major damage. Some homes were lost, gone into the tides, other damaged beyond repair.” He understood that this was going to be a sad time for all of the people in his community. He saw that electrical lines were down, living rooms were exposed, natural gas tanks were thrown around yards, and planks were ripped from their positions and strewn everywhere with their nails facing in dangerous positions. “As I made my way around the area, I warned people of the dangers of electrical lines, but to no avail. They continued to step over them and in some cases make contact with the lines. Fortunately the electricity was off, but had anyone bothered to verify that?” To James’ frustration, people arrived at the damage site and began to enter unstable structures in order to take photographs. They also moved power lines, crossed over unstable poles, or sifted through the debris without gloves on for protection. He also made it clear that the smell of chemicals was very apparent in the community. Also, cleaners and gasoline for mowers were being leaked into the soil and surf. James had to leave the area soon after checking on his own home, in order to continue work at other locations.

Clean up for the hurricane began almost immediately after the winds subsided. Trees were down, electricity was scarce, and what once were walls and floors were tossed about like toy building blocks. Businesses were looking to re-open, and in order to that, they needed to clear their parking lots, get damages repaired, and get their operations back up and running. Professional resources to tackle the needs of these small businesses were lacking in the area. The tree in someone’s parking lot meant that clientele could not get in, but the tree companies were too busy with the municipalities. They were contracted out days in advance of the storm to clear the roadways and city properties. Electricians were busy helping restore power to whole cities, leaving little time for the work needed in individual homes and buildings.

“The journeys for my job, took me to places all along the coast, from Misquamicutt to Narragansett, from Jamestown to Newport, and to places where homeowners, shop keepers, employers, volunteers, and maintenance men took the task of clearing ruble, cutting down trees, and clearing properties into their own hands. I saw people on ladders thirty feet into the air with no safe structured grounding, teetering as they tried to reconnect roping. I saw, chainsaws in the hands of maintenance men without any training or safety devices, and without knowledge of what they were clearing, [the chainsaws] reacted to weight shifts and limbs were removed. Live electrical lines were strewn across yards, and people carried about with no concern.” Months after the storm, James continued to witness unsafe and risky behavior in the attempts by locals to recover from the aftermath of the storm. Part of his job as a safety and health consultant was to work closely with outside vendors who were hired to help in the clean-up process. Unfortunately, he found out that many of these venders did not have proper training or knowledge. “I reviewed injury records at many businesses and saw that injuries [were] directly related to the activities these businesses were performing with their own in house personnel when professionals where not available.” James described one instance where a maintenance man suffered a broken ankle from shifting a tree. He was not properly trained, protected, or qualified to remove the tree. This is not acceptable, and it is easily avoidable.

James fears that these incidents are going to continue with increased intensity. “I fear our preparation is woefully inadequate, and our responses are equally so. It is vital that we acknowledge the threat we are facing, prepare in a meaningful way, and value the human life we have responsibility for. Next time, it may not simply be a broken ankle, it could be a broken family, mourning the loss of a loved one who took one too many chances.” Increased climate change without proper adaptation efforts could put more and more families at risk for situations similar to the ones mentioned earlier. In James’ opinion, “We will adapt to this increasing threat, of that I have no doubt. We will change as needed, reluctantly, but none-the-less we will. What we will lose along the way however, cannot be trivialized. We need to prepare, we need to keep people safe, we need to preserve our culture, we need to protect our memories, and we need to take action. If we take no action, we have given up, and we will allow our past to fade into a footnote.” Many agree with James that the dollar cost of storms can be made up over time, but the long lasting questions still remain the same. Can we put a value on the lives that are lost, the injuries incurred, the emotional strains, or the losses of ways of life that are results of not taking action against climate change?