October 29, 2015

Calm After the Storm

Climate Change Close to Home
by Kai Salem '18

Kai believes in the power of community to create climate resilience. She worked with Clean Water Action this summer as an iProv intern and TRI-Lab student to develop green infrastructure in the West End of Providence. 

Where were you during the storm of August 2015? If you live between Long Island and Cape Cod, you probably know what I mean: the thirty minutes when, out of nowhere, the sky turned green, the trees swayed like they were made of rubber, and rain pounded down. I like the Providence Journal’s descriptor: “Early morning terror as storm smashes R.I.” The terror woke me up at 6am that morning, and, for about half an hour, I watched the branches outside my window lash back and forth against the raw sky. Vaguely, still half asleep, I wondered if a branch would come crashing through my roof.

When I awoke again a couple hours later, I learned that the storm really had hit hard. Our house was without power, as was most of Fox Point. I passed a live wire swinging on Brook Street on my way to work and considered what to do with my refrigerated food. Elsewhere in the state the damage was worse: one person I spoke with described the many trees that had fallen around - and onto - his house. The 92 bus route was interrupted by another downed tree; I would have to walk to Kennedy Plaza.

Turning onto Brown’s campus was like passing into a different world: lights were on and electricity was humming thanks to the private back-up generator. The only sign that a storm had torn through was a few employees leaf-blowing the detritus into bags, picking it up, and walking away. At Brown, climate impacts can literally be blown into bags and thrown out. Elsewhere in the state, weather and climate often hit much harder.

Over the summer, I was working to mitigate local climate and weather impacts like this one. As part of the Climate Change and Environmental Justice TRI-Lab, I and a team of four other Brown students worked with Clean Water Action, Groundwork Providence, and several community organizations in the West End of Providence. Our goal was to map green space, flooding, heat, and community support in the neighborhood and then use that data to develop several green infrastructure project plans. Meanwhile, we conducted case studies on the green infrastructure approaches of other cities. At the beginning, my work at the community level felt small and unimportant in comparison to large-scale climate impacts, but by the end of the summer I had seen the necessity of local action on climate.  

For our research, we spent several days speaking to residents about any curbside flooding they had noticed in the neighborhood. As outsiders, we saw the water pools as data points, logging coordinates and incidents street-by-street (“These are just puddles!” I thought grumpily one morning, while photographing a clogged storm drain.) But the residents experienced climate impacts in a different way. They could often immediately recall the flooding they experienced every day - a puddle on their street, a clogged drain at the corner.

Climate impacts don’t exist as a point on the map or an inconceivable global political issue as they do for us, the students - they are real obstacles in the commute to work and school. “Yeah, it sometimes floods up that way,” one resident might say, waving to the south. “Oh, on Huntington?” we would respond, unable to emulate their lived understanding of the area’s geography and instead imagining the map we had memorized. We brought the maps, and the residents filled them in. Only with their expertise could we identify some methods to tackle the climate problems the West End faces. Climate resilience relies on assets and knowledge deeply embedded on a local level.

It was the night after the storm when I made the connection from my work in the West End to the importance of community. As I walked back through my neighborhood, I saw the intense urban darkness that only a power outage can bring. No houselights, no streetlights, no cell phones. And quiet - I couldn’t hear air conditioners, fans, or refrigerators. Except for the cars in the distance, it was like a different world. Once I got to my backyard, my roommates were outside chatting around a fire in the grill, making do without our lights. In the face of disaster (even one as relatively small as a day of power outage), we turn to our friends, family, and communities. In the darkness, I looked up - the stars were brighter than I had ever seen them in Providence.

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