Pre-Christmas storm causes flooding but no major damage
As if to prove a point, Mother Nature unleashed a whopper of a storm just a few days after the New Shoreham Sea Level Rise Committee’s December meeting. The storm that started late Thursday night did most of its damage locally during the high tide Friday morning, December 23, as waves washed over low-lying areas and caused significant erosion along the eastern shore of the island. The focus of the Sea Level Rise Committee’s meeting was on the importance of salt marshes, including their role in absorbing storm surge and preventing erosion.
But, Block Island’s salt marshes are mainly around the Great Salt Pond, and despite the build-up of dunes along the eastern shore, water washed over many areas of Corn Neck Road from the gas station north, leaving debris and sand all over the pavement. Particularly hard hit was the northern end and the area between Bridgegate Square and Fred Benson Town Beach where the parking lot was flooded. There were also “wash-overs” on Spring Street below the Spring House.
Tides and waves move sand around all the time, and although Crescent Beach was left a rocky scene, the storm surge was particularly damaging at Ballard’s Beach where snow-fencing was left a tangled mess and buried conduits and wires left over after the removal of the three tiki bars from the beach were exposed and strewn all over the shore.
There was also road flooding in New Harbor in the area of the low-lying juncture of Ocean Avenue and West Side Road. Photographs taken near high tide, which was about 7 a.m. on Friday, show water that appears to be a foot deep, but by 10:30 a.m., all that was left in the road was sand and debris.
Rain and continuing high winds – the highest reportedly on the island a 75 mile-per-hour gust, caused ferries to be canceled for all of Friday and Saturday. With no service planned for Christmas day on Sunday, Interstate Navigation resumed ferry trips on Monday morning.
The “adverse sea conditions” that stopped ferry service also caused flooding in Point Judith, with water coming over the bulkhead at the ferry docks and flooding the parking and freight areas.
The Block Island Power Company experienced three separate, but small outages. BIPCo President Jeffery Wright told The Block Island Times that he had planned to be away for the holidays, but that he didn’t think that would be fair to subcontracted workers that had given up their Christmas on the mainland to stay behind and help the island.
Two of the power outages affected two people each, and one affected one customer. The BIPCo crew got everyone up and running fairly quickly and also had to replace one broken pole off Corn Neck Road that served two cottages, both of which were unoccupied.
As the oceans rise, “resiliency” is the buzzword of the day, and dunes and salt marshes are particularly important, as the Sea Level Rise Committee’s invited guests on December 19, Caitlin Chaffee and Jen West from the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve, and Michael Bradley from the University of Rhode Island’s Natural Resources Science department pointed out.
Salt marshes were the particular focus of the meeting, and the extensive work that has resulted in a mapping of the Great Salt Pond with the identification of potential areas where salt marshes may migrate to as waters rise. Bradley, using GIS technology, has identified parcels along the shore of the pond that he has identified as “tier one,” in terms of being utilized as migration corridors for the island’s marshes.
Salt marshes play many important environmental roles, from providing unique environments for the plants and animals that inhabit them to capturing carbon (until they die and release it again) and absorbing energy from wage action, thereby preventing erosion.
Plants that inhabit the marshes closest to the water not only can tolerate being submerged twice per day in salt-water, they need it to survive. Plants a bit more inland, can withstand being submerged about 10 to 15 times per month. The various types of grasses that inhabit marshes depend on a base of peat.
What makes a parcel a tier one? The percentage of land that is already considered salt marsh, the elevation of the inland slope, and being adjacent to already conserved land. Bradley said that Block Island had close to the most identified tier one properties in the state, second to Warwick.