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RI Coastal Resources Management Council preserve, protect, develop, and restore coastal resources for all Rhode Islanders

CRMC talks to Realtors on front lines of climate change

February 5, 2019, CRANSTON – In Rhode Island, there is little to no memory of the last major hurricane  - Hurricane Carol in 1954 – and that’s a problem, says Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

“There’s no institutional memory of the last big hurricane,” he said to a classroom of Rhode Island Association of Realtors members earlier this month. “We don’t want to wait for a 100-year event to find out what it’s going to do to us. We want to predict it now.”

That’s what the CRMC is doing, precisely, through a series of sea level rise, storm surge, flooding, erosion, and risk assessment mapping tools developed through its R.I. Shoreline Change (Beach) Special Area Management Plan. The SAMP evaluates the changing conditions along the entire state’s shoreline, and provides guidance for both coastal applicants and homeowners, and coastal municipal managers.

Grover Fugate speaks with RI Association of Realtors members

Grover Fugate speaks with RI Association of Realtors members

Part of that work also includes educating major stakeholder groups, including Realtors, which Fugate said are on the front lines of the challenges posed by sea level rise and Rhode Island’s rapidly changing shoreline.

“We won’t need the next big hurricane to wake us up; it will come with the next one foot of sea level rise, which will happen in the next 20 to 30 years,” he told a Newport Realtors crowd last summer. “This will transform the real estate market.”

The CRMC is in a unique position to plan for these major changes, and to educate coastal managers and planners, as well as the public. And with a new coastal application guidance chapter in the Beach SAMP, awareness of the inherent risks will be key to Rhode Island’s ability to be resilient in the face of climate change and sea level rise. It is something Fugate speaks of often.

“There are three ways to deal with climate change and sea level rise: mitigation, adaptation, or suffering,” he told the Newport Realtors. “The extent [you accomplish] of the first two determines the extent of the third.”

Fugate, along with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), has been on a campaign of sorts for more than two years, visiting trades, economic, and other stakeholder groups all over Rhode Island, pitching them on the value of the SAMP tools and the costs of not planning for sea level rise. Fugate and Whitehouse talk about the science behind climate change (rising CO2) and sea level rise (expansion of water as global temperatures increase). Fugate warns them all about the impacts of melting ice sheets:

“We will feel the effect of that warming even more here – the loss of the west Antarctic ice sheet can cause up to 25 percent more sea level rise on the U.S. coast,” he told the Realtors at the recent talk on January 15.

He points out the fatal flaws in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain maps, which actually showed lowered risk in known vulnerable coastal areas in the state.

Chart of affected home prices

Chart courtesy of First Street Foundation

“The FEMA maps do not take sea level rise into account, and this gets back to having good data,” Fugate said. “This reduces your chance of having a good, robust real estate market so people can finance their house and still sell it at market value at the end of that mortgage life.”

There have already been changes in the market, ones that Fugate has been warning about for years. A recent study from Columbia University and First Street Foundation, which analyzed values for 2.5 million coastal properties in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, estimated total loss in home appreciations for the four states between 2005 and 2017 to be $403.1 million. In Rhode Island, homes lost $44.7 million in appreciation during that time. These trends seem directly tied to sea level rise threats.

“As you start to clock in those higher market rates, it really zaps the value of your home,” Fugate said last summer. “When you reach the end of your mortgage, you are below base flood elevation (BFE).”

The lack of a serious response from other regulators has Fugate frustrated, even as Rhode Island pushes forward with its proactive mapping tools and applicant guidelines.

“The thing I get frustrated with as a regulator is that all of my counterparts are going ahead as if nothing is changing in the future, but we know that it is,” he told the Realtors. “FEMA is billions of dollars in debt. Storms are increasing. We’re seeing the strongest storms we’ve ever seen, and that flood envelope is going to punch through even farther than the FEMA maps suggest. Those maps only look at past storm events. It’s like driving down I-95 using your rearview mirror. It’s not going to get you a good result.”

Fugate explained the effort from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finance the elevation of thousands of homes along the coast, including more than 300 in Rhode Island, with possibly more to come. The Corps will bear 65 percent of the cost, as well as acting as contractor and designer for the work. He added that efforts are also going on locally – the CRMC is working with municipalities to encourage them to allow property owners to build to future sea level rise conditions and not penalize them under the current building code.

“It’s a brave, new world and things are changing,” Fugate said. “We’re trying to understand them, and multiple approaches will be needed.”


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