We’re just over halfway through hurricane season and the Northeast has already been put through the wringer. Dangerous storms like Henri and Ida have battered our beaches and caused significant flooding and damage from Providence to Provincetown.
The climate crisis continues to fuel the intensity of these storms. As Governor, my priority will be to not only shore up our iconic shorelines, but also ensure equitable investments in all communities. Right now, the US Congress is debating legislation that could include billions for coastal resilience and restoration projects. That is the good news. The bad news is, there’s a real possibility that some of the most vulnerable communities may not see a penny of that unless Congress ensures everyone can benefit.
Funding for coastal resilience projects can help communities on the front lines of the climate crisis adapt to the changing world. This means everything from restoring wetlands that can protect low-lying neighborhoods from Providence to Boston from sea level rise, to seagrass replenishment off the Cape that can help absorb the impacts of waves and storm surges. Some of these investments go directly to local organizations that are doing the work on the ground to help coastal communities protect homes, businesses, and their economic livelihoods from the worst impacts of climate change. Jobs are created in those communities that can access the federal funds along with the possibility of opportunities for minority and women owned businesses.
Unfortunately, many federal grant programs that support this kind of work require states, local communities, and nonprofit organizations to match the federal funding with private dollars. Proponents of this approach argue that this encourages grant-seekers to have a stake in the process and provides more bang for every buck. In reality, it shuts out small towns and local organizations, particularly those that represent marginalized communities and people of color.
The result? These investments often do not reach the poorest, most vulnerable places that are most in need and least able to provide a match. Fortunately, a proposal pending now in Congress would provide coastal restoration funds directly though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with no matching requirements, allowing us to start addressing past inequities and ensuring that the communities that are getting the money are the ones that need it the most.
Coastal resilience investments have been a proven success in the past — for our environment and our economy. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which helped communities weather the recession, funded 125 habitat restoration projects in coastal areas throughout the country. A 2017 analysis found that restoration projects created an average of 15 jobs for every million dollars invested — a higher-than-average rate compared to other infrastructure projects.
In Rhode Island, we’ve seen successful coastal resilience projects like the living shoreline built to address erosion at the popular Rose Larisa Park in East Providence. Though partners were able to raise the necessary matching funds for this particular site, not all projects were able to secure the funds needed to qualify for federal support. The fact that there were 47 additional applications for shoreline protection within a mile of the site shows the huge need that exists. If more funding were available to all communities regardless of economic status, we could better address sea level rise, erosion, and increased flooding across the board.
Fortunately, we have leaders in Congress who understand this need. For many years, New England has had strong champions like U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse who has led the effort to invest in nature-based solutions and improve the resilience of coastal communities. Now, we have a chance to double down on this vision and replicate the success of projects like Rose Larisa Park in the communities that need it most by ensuring equitable access to federal funding.
With only more destructive storms and hurricanes on the horizon, we desperately need smart investments to help New England battle the climate crisis. As Governor and chief executive, I will ensure our investments help every community. I hope that in its work today, Congress passes legislation that ensures coastal restoration funds are accessible for all so that we can break ground on a better future.
Nellie Gorbea is the Secretary of State of Rhode Island and Democratic candidate for Governor of Rhode Island.