A roughly 25-ft section of the popular Cliff Walk pedestrian path in Newport, R.I., broke off and fell into Easton Bay on March 3, according to Bill Riccio, director of public services for the City of Newport.
The walkway attracts nearly 3 million visitors annually to enjoy seaside views of the town's many Gilded Age mansions.
City of Newport Fire Department public services crews responded to the collapse just before 3 p.m. after receiving a call from a person on the Cliff Walk, according to Newport Fire Department Deputy Chief Michael Ferreira. “They secured the scene and called in the state police with a K9 unit to search the collapse to see if there was anyone potentially stuck in the collapsed debris,” he says. “There were no injuries and there was no loss of life,” he says.
“The section of the wall known as Ochre Cliff is built along dense shale material with a 50-to-55-foot vertical drop at low tide,” says Tom Shevlin, City of Newport spokesman. “The cliff area collapse was a more natural feature with partial vegetation with a base seawall,” he says. It appears the failure was a landslide. “We don’t believe the failure originated from the top end of the walk,” he says. The cliff area is prone to erosion with natural caves and some voids, he says.
“We’re currently working with the state to chart a path forward to a comprehensive engineering assessment and a recommendation on what the repair might look like,” Shevlin says. “It is too early to predict when repairs can begin; we can expect further erosion around the site in the next few days,” he says. The area is totally sealed off and he predicts “only another 10 to 15 feet of the walk might collapse.”
No further erosion or collapses are apparent from visual inspection on March 10, Riccio says.
The city conducted its last extensive engineering assessment of the Cliff Walk area in 2014, after Superstorm Sandy. The work totaling $5.4 million took two and a half years to complete and until the Cliff Walk was reopened. The portion that collapsed was not among the areas identified as needing improvements, Shevlin says. “The Cliff Walk has been closed many times before."
“We are taking a very methodical approach toward developing a solution,” says Riccio. Since the incident, the small portion of the Cliff Walk that was affected has been closed and a detour has been set up.
The Cliff Walk is not owned by the city, Shevlin says. More than 40 public and private entities own portions of the Cliff Walk, including public streets that the city owns and maintains; to private property that the Cliff Walk traverses via easements, he explains.
In the past “repairs have typically stemmed from coastal events, hurricanes, severe winter storms,” says Shevlin. For this repair Shevlin says the city had been considering federal funding, looking at “a provision for emergency relief available through Federal Highway Administration Emergency Relief (FWHA) funding that would include repairs made because of either a natural disaster or for a wide area or a catastrophic failure.”
However, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Dept. of Transportation says the agency inquired on March 9 about FWHA funding for repairs and was denied. Both the City of Newport and the Cliff Walk project did not qualify for funding since a disaster proclamation was not issued by the governor or the president as required for such funding, they noted.
“We will continue to work with state and federal partners to locate all possible opportunities for funding assistance for this treasured tourist destination within the state of Rhode Island,” Riccio says.
“The good news about this repair is that it is a relatively small section that will be closed, but it will be relatively challenging because it’s an area with elevation that we have only dealt with a handful of times before,” he says.
Any repair work would also need to be approved by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, which assures that work is sensitive to the Native American environment, Shevlin says.