CHARLESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — A federal program covers nearly two-thirds of the cost for certain Rhode Island homeowners in South County to elevate their houses above flood risks, but only a fraction of property owners are choosing elevation over what experts say is near certain destruction.
And a spokesperson for the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council said if houses in certain areas of the state are more than 50% destroyed in a storm, they can’t be rebuilt.
After Superstorm Sandy hit Rhode Island in 2012, Congress approved federal funding to protect homes against future storms. The Army Corps of Engineers launched The Pawcatuck River Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study in 2016 to determine which houses in Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown and Narragansett qualified for elevation because of their flooding risk.
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For those deciding to opt into the program, the federal government pays 65% of the cost to elevate the home, while the homeowner pays 35%. Program estimates have homeowners paying between roughly $45,000 and $89,000, depending on house size.
In Charlestown, the Army Corps identified 45 properties that qualified for elevation.
“They only came up with 45 properties,” said Joseph Warner, who has been the town building and zoning official for more than a decade. “And we have hundreds, if not thousands that are potentially in harm’s way.”
Warner told Target 12 that because so many homes were built before FEMA’s floodplain policies went into effect, only about half are up to code.
That’s especially problematic because of the town’s exposure.
The non-profit First Street Foundation, which specializes in capturing America’s flood risk, found in a 2020 report that Charlestown has the greatest proportion of properties at risk of flooding statewide.
But despite the town’s extreme risk, of the 45 houses that qualified for the elevation program, Target 12 learned only 17 homeowners are going through with the design stage. That’s 38% of eligible homes.
“It’s certainly intriguing that we didn’t have more interest,” Warner said. “Because that’s a pretty big percentage to be paid for.”
The Army Corps declined to provide a list of addresses eligible for the funds and declined an interview request.
Warner said in the long run, elevating a house would lead to savings on flood insurance that far surpass the initial cost of elevating.
In its study, the Army Corps estimates Charlestown homeowners will suffer more than $47 million worth of damage between 2020 and 2070 if they don’t go through with elevating their houses.
Brown University professor Baylor Fox-Kemper, who studies sea-level rise, put it differently.
“We have three choices: choice number one is to adapt and get ready,” he said. “Number two is to reduce the effects by reducing our emissions, and choice number three is to suffer — that is to just take the loss.”
Fox-Kemper is one of the authors of a 2021 United Nations-backed report, which found the earth’s climate is warming faster than previously known.
“The first effects of sea-level rise won’t actually be this slow creeping,” he said “It’ll just be an increase in frequency of the floods.”
“These extreme events are going to hit you in a more and more catastrophic way,” he added.
Fox-Kemper said he understands the cost of elevating is substantial for homeowners, but he also offered a word of caution.
“Scientists are extremely certain,” he said. “They should not be relying on us being wrong at this stage.”
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Target 12 identified one Charlestown neighborhood where several homes qualified for elevation, but was unable to reach the homeowners for comment (several of the properties appear to be seasonal homes.) If a 100 year storm hits the town, which carries a 1% chance each year, flooding could reach more than a quarter mile inland.
Warner said some homeowners tell him when their houses get wiped out, they’ll just elevate the foundations when they rebuild.
But CRMC spokesperson Laura Dwyer told Target 12 they might not be able to rebuild.
She pointed to a citation in CRMC’s regulations, which states: “…all residential and non-water dependent recreational, commercial, and industrial structures on undeveloped barriers physically destroyed fifty percent (50%) or more by storm induced flooding, wave or wind damage may not be reconstructed regardless of the insurance coverage carried.”