For more coverage, see our story from April 2020, Mavericks pitch novel buyout plan for flood-prone Warren, from our series, When is it time to retreat from the sea?

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Warren, Rhode Island is one of the smallest towns in the smallest state — but when it comes to dealing with climate change, it has big plans. Located on the East Bay, the town is already seeing the effects of rising sea levels, and it’s starting to adapt.  

We had Janek Schaller and Emily Tom from our Possibly team look into it.

Janek Schaller: Hey Megan!

Emily Tom: Thanks for having us!

Megan Hall: So, give us the rundown. What’s happening in Warren right now?

Janek Schaller: Warren is located on a peninsula, which means rising sea levels are going to be a major problem for the town. But for one part of the town in particular, rising waters are already causing major issues. .

Emily Tom: There’s one street called Market Street, where flooding is soon going to become unmanageable. 

Janek Schaller: Experts predict that by 2050, flood waters could rise up to three feet in the Market Street area. 

Emily Tom: Janek and I took a trip down to Warren to visit a small park, located between Market Street and a wetland.

Janek Schaller: It’s one of Bob Rulli’s favorite meeting places.

Bob Rulli: I’m Bob Rulli. I’m the Director of Community Development for the Town of Warren.

Janek Schaller: We visited the day after a rainstorm, and the park was all puddles and mud. Rulli says that happens because heavy storms overwhelm the town’s drainage systems.

Emily Tom: And that’s what he’s really worried about: not just the rise in sea levels that’s decades away, but the storm surges that are in the very near future.

Bob Rulli: When we're talking about a couple of inches of sea level rise, I mean, that makes people yawn a little bit. 

Janek Schaller: But Bob says that within the next few decades, floodwaters could rise high enough to wipe out the first floor of most of the houses in this area. 

Megan Hall: Wow, how many homes are we talking about?

Janek Schaller: There are four hundred buildings in the affected Market Street area. That includes about seven hundred housing units.

Emily Tom: Not to mention the businesses on Market Street. 

Megan Hall: What’s going to happen to all of these buildings? 

Emily Tom: That’s where Arica Thornton comes in. She’s a designer at Union Studio. 

Arica Thornton: Can we you know, relocate these people, can we get them out of there ahead of time before they lose the value in their properties.

Megan Hall: So, everyone in this part of Warren will have to move?

Janek Schaller: Yes. And Arica is helping to create new places for these people to live. 

Emily Tom: Her firm is creating a new development just slightly south of Market Street. The plan is to develop up to seven hundred new mixed-income housing units there.

Janek Schaller: The earliest phase of this new construction is scheduled to be complete by 2035, just over ten years from now.  

Megan Hall: And what’s going to happen to the Market Street Area? Will it just be an abandoned flood zone?

Emily Tom: Hopefully not. Even if people aren’t living there, that doesn’t mean the community can’t use it. Thornton has a few ideas on how to make the space an asset. 

Arica Thornton: We could have elevated walkways, and kayak launches, and people could really actively use this area for recreation.

Janek Schaller: It’s going to be a long process. And there will be a lot of loss. But Bob Rulli says it’s better to face the issue now than wait for it to get worse.

Bob Rulli: It’s an emotional thing for people to say, I'm going to potentially lose something. …But that's like saying, You're never going to get old. We are. 

Emily Tom: The bottom line is, Warren may be one of the first places to move people out of a future flood zone, but it won’t be the last. 

Janek Schaller: According to a recent analysis, by 2050, around 650,000 properties across the United States will be partly underwater or completely underwater at high tide.  

Megan Hall: So there’s no avoiding this?

Emily Tom: Well, we can still work to slow the emissions that contribute to sea level rise.

But we also have to adapt. Warren’s approach could be a blueprint for other cities as they prepare for the inevitable.

Megan Hall: Yikes. Got it. Thanks, Janek and Emily!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.