CELS alumnus makes strides in making Rhode Island town better prepared for a future of storms
Fred Presley took over the reins as West Warwick’s town planner on the heels of one of the worst floods in that town’s history. After heavy rains left much of West Warwick under 13 feet of water in 2010, Presley’s number one goal was to make the town more resilient against future floods and natural disasters.
Of his role as town planner and then town manager, he reflects, “For me, this is a level of engagement where you can have the most impact.” Presley, a College of the Environment and Life Sciences alumnus, continues, “This position in particular enables you to make things happen every day.”
In keeping with this goal, Presley has formalized the town’s Emergency Management Agency, provided Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training to employees, and upgraded equipment and IT services to help West Warwick become better prepared for a future of increased floods and other challenges. Better training for emergency employees should result in quicker recovery from storm events that are expected to occur more and more often. “As these one in a thousand year storms become more prevalent,” Presley explains, “we need to better prepare ourselves for more snow storms and microbursts like we had last year.” Well-trained emergency employees are key to that preparation.
This was no easy task, as West Warwick was on the brink of bankruptcy when Presley became town manager in 2013. After averting a financial disaster and despite severe budget constraints, Presley was able keep his focus on resiliency and sustainability by starting a wind turbine project for West Warwick that is estimated to save the Town $30-40 million in power costs over the next 25 years. Beginning in June 2016, the wind turbines will provide 100% renewable energy for all of the Town’s municipal buildings, including police and fire departments, five schools, and its wastewater treatment plant, making West Warwick the first community in Rhode Island to successfully run completely off a sustainable energy source. After Presley’s attempts at other sustainable solutions such as geothermal energy, Presley was able to push wind turbines and gain public support for the project.
“It is about taking an idea, informing the population of its importance, and then not giving up on it,” explains Presley.
Presley gained the background needed for these accomplishments at URI as a resource development major, with a specialization in soil and water resources. The program, a predecessor to the current environmental science major, attracted him with its holistic approach: its emphasis on how things work together, and how humans can both negatively and positively impact the environment. The program teaches management at an ecosystem level, highlighting how everything is connected- from the soils, to the hydrology, to the wildlife.
Passionate about the benefits of this whole systems based approach within communities and small municipalities, Presley traveled around the world educating others. Between 2007 and 2010, starting with consulting jobs in Australia for an organization that helps communities become more resilient and adapt to environmental changes, Presley traveled to places such as Abu Dhabi for conferences like the Festival of Thinkers to address change and disruption on a global scale as communities around the world adapt to a future with a changing climate.
“I enjoy dealing with how to approach these issues and shift our way of thinking. Not just for West Warwick, but all communities.” explains Presley.
To extend his knowledge and reach, Presley continues the conversation at the local, state, and international levels as an Advisory Board Member of the RI Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (RIEC4), President of the RI City and Town Managers Association (RICTMA), and Planning Committee Member of the International City/County Manager Association (ICMA).
Presley states, “there is a great opportunity in this engagement. We are dealing with greater levels of disruption than ever before and we need people in the right positions that are able to understand that.”
Whether Presley plans to continue lecturing on holistic resilience or strengthening West Warwick, there is no stopping him in his quest to make the world a better place.