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Seth Magaziner: R.I. infrastructure must be climate resilient

A man used a boat to ferry residents and supplies in Westerly, R.I. in April 2010. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
A man used a boat to ferry residents and supplies in Westerly, R.I. in April 2010. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

To read all of the Globe’s op-eds on climate change, click here.

High quality infrastructure is the foundation of a strong economy, and we must ensure that the Ocean State’s infrastructure is climate resilient.

In the spring of 2010, Rhode Island was rocked by floods that displaced thousands of people and brought our already struggling economy to a standstill.

The economic and financial impact of the 2010 flooding was significant. Property damage was conservatively estimated to be more than $200 million. Interstate 95, the state’s central artery, was flooded and impassable through Warwick and Cranston for days. One of the main commercial districts in West Warwick was submerged beneath ten feet of water. Major utilities flooded and failed, leaving thousands without power and releasing millions of gallons of untreated sewage into Narragansett Bay.

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It was only through the heroic work of first responders and the Rhode Island National Guard that even worse impacts to the health and safety of Rhode Islanders were narrowly avoided.

As we look toward the future, Rhode Island must face the fact that we are becoming more vulnerable to extreme weather like the 2010 floods. Rising air temperatures are causing the northeast to experience more frequent and severe rainfall. Rhode Island’s sea levels have risen nearly six inches in the past thirty years, destroying miles of beach and marsh land that provided a buffer from flooding.

Faced with these challenges, Rhode Island must prioritize investments in infrastructure that will protect our citizens from the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events.

In recent years, state leaders have taken bold action to begin repairing many categories of our infrastructure. A statewide school construction initiative, developed by a task force that I co-chaired in 2017, is improving the condition of school buildings throughout the state. The RhodeWorks program is making strides in the vital task of repairing our roads and bridges. Investments in offshore wind are allowing Rhode Island to trade imported fossil fuels for clean, locally produced electricity. These projects are employing thousands of people and making our state more economically competitive.

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Looking ahead, Rhode Island will need similarly bold action to make our infrastructure more climate resilient. We will need to raise roads, build seawalls, restore dunes and marshes, and harden critical utilities like water treatment plants and electrical substations.

We have taken some important early steps in this direction. In 2015 our office worked with the Governor and General Assembly to expand the state’s Clean Water Finance Agency into a full-fledged Infrastructure Bank. Funding from the Infrastructure Bank is available to help cities and towns strengthen their infrastructure from climate related risks. Last year, at the direction of the Governor, the Infrastructure Bank appointed the state’s first Chief Resiliency Officer.

But this is just the beginning.

Upgrading our infrastructure to defend our state from climate change and extreme weather is a generational challenge that will require ambition and urgency. With the proper focus we can meet this challenge and create good construction jobs while improving our economy, health and quality of life for all Rhode Islanders.


Seth Magaziner, a Democrat, is the general treasurer of Rhode Island.