WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Warwick homeowners could be on the hook for what amounts to a “hidden tax,” even if they don’t live near the water.
Research from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit which specializes in capturing America’s flood risk, found Warwick had the second-highest estimated cost for flood damage in 2021 of any city or town in Rhode Island, with a price tag of $890,000. And over the next 30 years, the research shows residents can expect those costs to increase by more than 45 percent.
The only community with a higher flood risk was Newport.
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In Warwick, certain parts of the city are especially exposed.
A 100-year storm, which has a 1% chance of happening each year, would submerge the majority of the Oakland Beach peninsula under eight to 20 feet of water. The last hurricane of that magnitude to hit Rhode Island was Hurricane Carol in 1954.
Densely populated with many low-income residents, Oakland Beach is even more vulnerable to a large storm than the rest of the city.
Oakland Beach store owner Michael Bradbury said he knew Warwick is vulnerable to flooding, but before talking to Target 12, he didn’t know how severe the risk is for the area where he lives and works.
“I would definitely heed warning immediately,” Bradbury said. “And if it were serious enough, we’d be packing up and leaving.”
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Bradbury said he’s never received information or warnings about what a major storm could do to the area.
Residents living on Warwick Neck would also need to plan ahead.
“It could be cut off,” said Warwick planning director Tom Kravitz. “And absent a major civil engineering effort to raise the roadway or something, I don’t know how you would deal with that.”
Rhode Island’s Stormtools data mapping projections show flooding levels on the roads leading to Warwick Neck will hit between four and 16 feet deep, transforming the peninsula into an island, if a storm with the strength of Hurricane Carol strikes.
“You’ve got to just be prepared and be ready to move when a storm comes in certain parts of the city,” Kravitz said.
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“A lot of people in the area probably aren’t aware of how deep the water could be around here,” Bradbury said. “They don’t know until it happens to them.”
But city leaders have studied the risk.
Warwick conducted a Risk Assessment in 2019 and found there were 1,385 properties in a floodplain across the city. If a 100-year storm hit the city, total potential building damage would hit nearly $200 million and the expected economic loss would be about $144 million, the analysis found.
“It’s been such a long time since this area has had a direct hit from a storm,” Kravitz said. “Even a Category 1 storm that’s to our west would surprise people.”
For homeowners who can’t rebuild, the city would lose out on tax revenue from their properties — a financial burden the Risk Assessment noted would be shouldered by the rest of Warwick homeowners. The only option for some people in low-lying areas will be a difficult one.
“Sometimes you just have to move, and I think that’s an important thing to consider as well,” Kravitz said.
Compounding Warwick residents’ financial burden, the First Street Foundation also found that many city residents living in floodplains are either uninsured or underinsured.
Of the 1,385 properties in a floodplain across the city in 2019, just 905 had flood insurance policies. That number has dropped to 556 properties this year.
Jeremy Porter, chief research officer at the First Street Foundation, said if a 1954-level hurricane hit Warwick today, it could mean many residents would have to abandon their homes because they can’t afford to rebuild them.
And Warwick isn’t unique: Porter said only about a third of people in flood zones nationwide comply with the federal mandate to have flood insurance policies. He said a big reason for that is a lack of transparency about why it’s so important.
“The types of models that we’re developing, they exist in the world, but they exist in a black box,” he said. “Institutional investors have access to them, mortgage companies have access to them, banks have access to them — regular people don’t have access to the information.”
When homeowners don’t understand the importance, Porter said, they often let their flood insurance lapse.
“People will get it as a requirement to purchase the home, but then they won’t renew after year No. 1, or they won’t renew after year No. 5,” he said.
Patrick MacMeekin, risks and hazards planner at the R.I. Emergency Management Agency, said that while FEMA requires flood insurance for properties in floodplains, it’s up to lending institutions to enforce the mandate. And if people purchase a house in cash or pay off their mortgage, that mechanism of enforcement disappears.
Porter also warned that FEMA flood zone maps aren’t reliable for assessing property-level flood risk. Experts suggest using the state’s Stormtools data mapping website, which gives more detailed information on flooding by address.