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Providence, R.I., Beginning Upgrades to Fox Point Hurricane Barrier to Stem Floods

Mon July 24, 2023 - Northeast Edition #17
The Public Radio & CEG

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in Providence, Rhode Island with its gates closed during Hurricane Irene on Aug. 28, 2011. (John MacPherson/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)
Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in Providence, Rhode Island with its gates closed during Hurricane Irene on Aug. 28, 2011. (John MacPherson/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

The mayor of Providence, R.I., Brett P. Smiley, announced July 10 that $1.5 million in repairs to the city's Fox Point Hurricane Barrier will get under way July 24. The project is designed to replace the underground hydraulics of the sewer gates located at the intersection of Allens Avenue and Henderson Street.

"This infrastructure investment is a critical part of how we can ensure Providence is resilient in the face of intense weather events and climate change," Smiley said in a statement. "Repairs to the hurricane barrier are long overdue and we are committed to making sure that the repairs are completed as quickly and safely as possible."

The Allens Avenue hurricane barrier gates play a key role in the city's ability to protect downtown Providence from flooding in the event of a storm surge. They fight potential floods from sea level rise and excessive rainfall storms. During a storm surge, the gates can be closed, which keeps the sea water out. There's also a pump installed to discharge excess rain and river water into the bay.

Currently, the hurricane barrier sewer gates must be manually shut ahead of heavy storms or hurricanes. Once the planned upgrades are complete, city crews will be able to close the gates more quickly and efficiently during an emergency, according to Smiley's office.

At least one local climate researcher has applauded the city's decision, The Public Radio in Providence reported.

Rain, and with it flooding, are only expected to increase in Providence in the future, said Baylor Fox-Kemper, a climate modeler and oceanographer at Brown University.

"Floods of a particular strength are getting more and more frequent," he explained. "As we go forward, we should expect the hurricane barrier to be used more and more just to protect from these increased flooding events."

Fox-Kemper told the news outlet that there are two major climate change-caused flood threats to the city: water coming up into the city, which is caused by sea level rise, and water pouring down into the city, which is caused by increased rainfall and moisture in the air.

"Warmer water is bigger, and so it doesn't fit in the ocean in the same way," Fox-Kemper added. "That's about half the effect, and the ice sheets are melting and adding more water to the ocean as well."

And the extra 1.1 degree Celsius the planet has experienced has led to about 6 percent more moisture in the air, which is what Providence is currently experiencing. Coincidentally, the same day Smiley announced the hurricane barrier repair project was the wettest July 10th of the past century, according to the National Weather Service.

The first phase of construction should conclude by mid-August, the mayor said. During this phase of construction, southbound traffic on Allens Avenue will detour onto Eddy Street, then to Blackstone Street, and back to Allens Avenue. Northbound traffic will be reduced to one lane around the work zone.

Barrier Built in Wake of Two Destructive Hurricanes

The Fox Point Hurricane Protection Barrier in Providence is located immediately south of the Narragansett Electric Co. plant, just north of Fox Point and a mile south of the city's downtown.

Providence suffered extensive damage from the hurricane of 1938 and Hurricane Carol in 1954 when, in each instance, water depths of up to 8 ft. were experienced in the city's commercial area. In each case, the flood damages were in the multi-millions of dollars.

Construction on the hurricane barrier finally began in July 1961 and was completed in January 1966 at a cost of $15 million.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Cape Cod Canal Project Office operates and maintains the barrier's elements located within the Providence River banks, while the city of Providence operates and maintains the rest of the structure.

The barrier itself is a 700-ft.-long and 25-ft.-high concrete structure that extends westerly across the Providence River from Tockwotton Street, near Fox Point, to Globe Street, near the Narragansett Electric power plant.

Three radial arm floodgates, known as Tainter gates, on the structure prevent the entry of floodwaters from the bay when closed and permit passage of small vessels when open. Each gate is 40 ft. wide and 40 ft. high.

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