PSNC’s 266-year-old Hunter House is perched a few meters from Newport Harbor, its basement floods regularly, and its Bannister’s Wharf store frequently sees water just inches from its front door, according to the organization’s executive director, Trudy Coxe. It hasn’t lost anything yet, she said, but its staff has become adept at relocating both buildings’ contents while they consider contingency solutions, including elevation and amphibious technology.
“Hunter House was even built to endure flooding, so it’s set back slightly and has a small plot of land. But that house is at risk, which is true for a lot of houses along Washington Street,” Coxe said. “I don’t think any state in America is doing enough. One of the things that gets in the way of doing more is that we don’t know what we should be doing. The solutions are incredibly expensive. Plus, people think they can pass it to the next generation, or that someone will come along and wave a magic wand and it will all go away.
“But predictions are pointing to it getting rougher out there. We are on the verge of disasters.”
The NRF is equally concerned. It has preserved and restored more than 80 homes from the 18th and early 19th centuries, 25 of which are in The Point, including 74 Bridge St. Though it hasn’t adapted or elevated its houses to accommodate excessive water, that’s not to say the organization won’t, according to executive director Mark Thompson.
Though the NRF sold 74 Bridge St. in early July, Thompson said he suspects it’s a candidate for elevation with its new owners’ rejuvenation plan.
“A lot of people think that The Point is the focal point of the climate-change issue in Newport, but we are not just interested in our houses, we are interested in Newport, because if we save 25 houses, and nobody else is able to do that, then there is no point in it,” Thompson said. “Cities around the world say infrastructure should be erected, like gating systems, and elevating or relocating houses to preserve the integrity, but how high do you raise it to be effective? Our goal is to save the houses where they are, and that we save them the right way.”
NRF’s interest in that signature property inspired it to launch a national conference where experts discussed these issues and possible solutions. Its inaugural Keeping History Above Water event in Newport in 2016 became a huge success, said Mullen, who was then NRF’s public program manager. Since then, it has spread to other coastal communities, including St. Augustine, Fla., Annapolis, Md., and Palo Alto, Calif.. The conference is scheduled to be held in Charleston, S.C., next year.
J. Paul Loether, executive director of Rhode Island’s Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, also is trying to create an intelligence clearinghouse to help municipalities, homeowners, and nonprofits streamline strategies. As experts in knowing what properties are significant across the state, the Providence-based commission wants to secure funding and political influence to amplify preservation and to identify the highest risk areas and better equip municipal planners.
“Newport’s solution will work for them as a city, but we need to be more strategic as a state,” Loether said. “It doesn’t take much to visualize Main Street in Wickford being underwater. So, we want to give them the best information we can. But there is no easy answer. It raises philosophical issues, financial issues; where is the tipping point? I have seen houses in Connecticut raised 12 feet and it looks like Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds.’ But others you can’t even tell.
“It’s not driven by preservation in many cases, it’s driven by the rising cost of FEMA flood insurance. If you’re dealing with a single structure, it’s one thing, but the whole neighborhood? Are you going to raise the street? Then you have to wonder, are we preserving history or preserving the property? Then the bigger issue is, do you really have a historic district?”
From the Ocean State to the Golden State, there are more questions than answers, which is precisely why the approach is scattershot. But as storms become more frequent and intense and nuisance flooding becomes more routine necessity will drive activity. Though no residents in Newport have received elevation approval yet, Johnson, the city’s historic preservation planner, remains optimistic that this is the way forward.
“We want to get these communities together to learn from what we’re doing here in Newport and see if we can help other municipalities develop their own guidelines,” she said. “We are such a small state but we are so diverse in our building stock and municipal resources, so we need to discuss the impacts and things we can do to tackle sea-level rise and floodwater.”
In the meantime, there are tough truths we must face, Mullen said.
“In terms of cultural heritage, there are only a few possible reactions: you either raise up structures; you relocate structures; or you retreat,” she said. “And ultimately, maybe 100 years, retreat is the only predictable outcome. We’re not seeing reversal in climate trends, and climate scientists say the projections are too conservative. So, if we know the conditions are unlikely to change, we have to change the way we live, and make proactive decisions now about what we’re willing to lose and what we’d like to keep.”
Annie Sherman is a freelance journalist based in Newport, R.I., covering the environment, food, local business, and travel in the Ocean State and New England. She is the former editor of Newport Life magazine, and author of “Legendary Locals of Newport.”