Lost airport wetlands could impact storm surge
To the Editor:
There's a little ghost town down by Lake Shore Drive next to T.F. Green Airport. Several roads and six houses disappeared into the Buckeye Brook flood plain there after the 1938 hurricane. The storm surge came up Buckeye Brook from the sea, dashing the dreams of many city residents on that fateful day 76 years ago. It swamped that little village.
In its new Army Corps study to justify filling in part of the Buckeye Brook flood plain, the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) finds that storm surges frequently come up Buckeye Brook from the sea, as the Hurricane of '38 surge did. But then it soft-pedals the problem with boatloads of data showing that eight-inch rainstorms hitting the airport won't flood Buckeye Brook. But that is not the issue. Everybody knows that when you stand in front of a doorway, people can't get through. They back up into the corridor or street. A storm surge coming up the bay has many more times the water than a rainstorm coming down from the airport. The FEMA map that RIAC has attached to its study clearly states, "The floodway...must be kept free of encroachment."
What happens when you break the rule? The corridor, in this case Buckeye Brook, backs up, causing grief and mayhem perhaps as far away as Waldo Road, where the late environmentalist Steve Insana grew up. The City Engineer's damage report stored in the city vault since 1938 shows that a house was lost in the Hurricane of '38 right next to where RIAC wants to block the door to the storm surges. All six houses are now gone. Maybe we should call this little village Stephantown in Steve's memory.
Buckeye Brook is tidal. Put up a barrier and you can get into real trouble, especially as sea levels rise and more storms surge up to Stephantown. The problematic headwater for Buckeye Brook is the entire angry gray sea, rising higher every year and potentially deep-sixing more and more Stephantowns – streets where people have maintained their homes and raised their families. RIAC, the mayor and the City Council need to look at that 1938 report to understand that the real flood threat comes up the brook from the sea, not down from the airport.
Has anyone ever seen a jet coming in for a landing over Ann & Hope and the mayor's campaign office? I haven't. That crosswinds runway is used only for "visual approaches" through strong southeasterly winds. These winds bring clouds, fog, rain and snow. Yet, that runway has no instruments or storm lighting to deal with nasty weather. That's the runway that RIAC wants to make "safer" by filling in the flood plain to keep hotshot pilots landing without instruments on inclement days from dropping off the cliff into Buckeye Brook after they "land long" by the seats of their pants.
I have looked at the flight data. On February 23, 2013, as conditions were closing in for a southeasterly storm, two jets landed on this runway without instruments. All the other pilots were using their instruments on the main runway. There are six other reports of jets landing on this runway in most of 2013. Four are probably data errors. The other two landed on April 8. It was another marginal day when most pilots used the main runway's instrument approach. Should we be encouraging these riskier landings by maverick pilots of passenger jets?
In its new study, RIAC reports that the FAA has limited its budget for all safety improvements to $16 million. Spending more is not justified, according to FAA procedures. But Governor Chafee reports in his new budget to the General Assembly that the FAA will contribute $33.6 million for safety improvements, not $16 million. All the subsidiaries of the new Commerce Corporation, including RIAC, must get their numbers straight. It is no longer acceptable under state statute to be telling the Army Corps one thing and the General Assembly something entirely different.
Governor Chafee also reports that RIAC is planning to spend an additional $51 million to move the ball fields, relocate Main Avenue, and extend the main runway. Under the 38 Studios rules, this $51 million must be considered to be the real amount for the entire runway extension project.
Consider the staggering expenses: the ball field move includes a new road from the RIAC fire station all the way to Airport Road. Then there's the Main Avenue relocation that drifts inexorably south at the St. Rose of Lima School, plows over houses down to the airport, swings through the existing ball fields, and then loops back to the existing alignment near Palace Avenue. Finally there's the actual runway extension. All of this for $51 million? Are we headed down a 38 Studios path again, throwing millions into Buckeye Brook to protect a few hotshot pilots who should be using their instruments on the main runway? Let's get real and use that money for the main runway extension, the thing that business interests in Providence want.
How much will this project of filling in the flood plains add to the flood insurance premiums of the people in the Waldo Road and other areas up and down Buckeye Brook? Should RIAC succeed in impeding the surge at Stephantown, the impediment will be there for all time – as sea levels rise and more and more streets and people get flooded out. It is not such a stretch of the imagination to see Waldo Road becoming another ghost town. Who will pay for that?
Greenwich Bay Watershed Group