Natural Disasters in Rhode Island: What Is the Risk?

Rhode Island is home to more than 1 million people, many of whom have personally witnessed natural disasters or had to evacuate due to them.

However, many Rhode Island residents are unaware of the various types of natural disasters that could occur in the state.

This report aims to outline the natural disasters that can happen in Rhode Island, highlight the most severe ones that have occurred since 2000, and provide advice on how residents can prepare for them.

Is Rhode Island At Risk of Natural Disasters?

Compared to the rest of the United States, Rhode Island has a very low risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, Rhode Island has had 14 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 7 were declared significant disasters. 

Rhode Island is also sometimes hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, more than 14 separate $1-billion events have affected Rhode Island.

Worst Natural Disasters in Rhode Island (Since 2000)

  1. Hurricane Sandy 2012: $83.9 billion in damages and 159 deaths
  2. Hurricane Ida 2021: $80.2 billion in damages and 96 deaths
  3. Hurricane Irene 2011: $17.7 billion in damages and 45 deaths
  4. Hurricane Isaias 2020: $5.5 billion in damages and 16 deaths
  5. 2016 Drought: $4.3 billion in damages and 0 deaths

*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.

Most Common Natural Disasters in Rhode Island

1. Flooding

As a coastal state, Rhode Island is at very high risk for flooding, especially storm surges and tidal flooding from sea level rise and tropical cyclones. Snowmelt and heavy rainfall can also cause widespread flooding and deadly flash floods in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Flood Stats

  • 26,500 properties at substantial risk in 2020
  • 35,700 FEMA flood damage claims since 2000
  • 49,000 properties at risk by 2050
  • 30,400 properties will be at substantial risk by 2050
  • 6,600 properties at almost certain risk by 2050

Which Areas of Rhode Island Are Most At-Risk of Flooding?

Floods can occur in all parts of Rhode Island, but some areas of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of Rhode Island with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations). 

  • Charlestown: 27%
  • Central Falls: 16%
  • Newport: 13%
  • Providence: 13%
  • Woonsocket: 12%

Because of climate change, the risk of flooding is growing in many parts of Rhode Island. For example, by 2050, an estimated 34% of properties in Charlestown will be at risk of flooding.

Worst Flood Events in Rhode Island History

The March 2010 floods were the worst in Rhode Island’s history. The flooding was caused by intense rainfall, which caused the rivers to swell and flood. Bridges and roads were washed out, and buildings were left underwater.

Sewage treatment plants were also overwhelmed, which caused drinking water contamination. The floods also affected other states in the Northeast, causing $2.5 billion in damages and 11 deaths.

2. Heavy Snowfall and Winter Storms

Rhode Island ranks #13 in the country for the most snowfall and #18 for the most snowfall days per year. 

Snowfall in Rhode Island often comes down as snowstorms or blizzards. These winter storms can shut down businesses and travel, resulting in substantial economic losses. Since 2000, the state has been affected by four billion-dollar winter storms.

Because of how common winter storms are in Rhode Island, all residents must have an emergency heater and emergency supplies in their vehicles.

Rhode Island Winter Weather Stats

  • Average snowfall per year: 39”
  • Snowfall days per year: 42 days
  • Coldest recorded temperature: -25°F in Greene in 1996
  • Record snowfall: 30” in Woonsocket in 1978

3. Freezing Rain

The climate of the Northeast makes it ideal for freezing rain. Rhode Island can expect at least 12 to 18 hours of freezing rain annually. This makes it one of the most at-risk states in the USA.

Freezing rain most frequently occurs during December and January, but fall and spring freeze events also happen. 

Icy road conditions increase the likelihood of vehicle accidents and slip-and-fall injuries. Additionally, freezing rain events can result in power outages, leaving thousands of people without heating during the coldest months.

4. Heat Waves

As with the rest of the country, the risk of heat days is increasing in Rhode Island. Currently, Rhode Island has almost no “dangerous” heat days per year. The National Weather Service defines these as days where the heat index is 103F or above. By 2050, the number of dangerous heat days in Rhode Island is expected to increase to 10 per year.

In addition to more dangerous heat days, Rhode Island will see more “Local Hot Days.”  Local Hot Days are defined as “Days at or above the 98th percentile temperature, or the temperature than an area could expect to see on the hottest 7 days of the year.”  Essentially, Local Hot Days factor in what temperatures a local population is used to experiencing.  

An increase in Local Hot Days is associated with health problems like strokes, and heat-related deaths are more likely to occur. Energy demands also increase from air conditioning use.

All parts of Rhode Island are expected to have an increase in Local Hot Days, but Newport County is particularly at-risk. By 2053, Newport is expected to have 17 consecutive days with temperatures at or above 91.8℉.

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