Jul 1, 2013
07:16 PMThe Connecticut Story
The Connecticut Shoreline Continues to Rebuild While Preparing for Another Hurricane Season
Sean Devlin cleans up after masons had just finished the new pilings for his house on Cosey Beach in East Haven. Damage from Sandy has delayed his reconstruction for more than a year.
In July 2011, a visitor to the Cosey Beach section of East Haven would have seen a typical shoreline community—families fully engaged in a casual pursuit of summer, enjoying sand, sun and sea amidst a well-established hodgepodge of beach houses.
Today, the picture is somewhat different—there are still plenty of sun worshippers, but numerous homes here now stand high on fresh concrete pilings or wooden posts. Dumpsters and storage units dot many driveways, as do contractors’ vans and construction equipment. On the less fortunate lots, yellow police tape flaps in the ocean breeze, cordoning off piles of debris that once were residences.
“People are still reeling from having two significant storms, one year after the other,” says state representative James Albis (D-East Haven), of his hometown. “There were some folks who built up on stilts just prior to Sandy hitting—so they were in the process of rebuilding from Irene—and when they were up above the flood plain they were able to keep themselves safe from damage. There are still some homes in disrepair, and that’s either because folks are not financially able to do all the repairs that they want to or because they’ve been waiting for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] assistance, which often takes a very long time.”
Two years after Hurricane Irene blew through Connecticut, and less than 10 months removed from Superstorm Sandy, many portions of the shoreline are still recovering while also trying to prepare for another hurricane season.
“If you drive through our beach area now, it looks like one big construction site,” says Michael Tetreau, first selectman of Fairfield, another battered shoreline town. He says one of the biggest challenges—and frustrations—is not only getting funds from FEMA (the state only announced plans last month for hearings on how to allocate $82.5 million in Sandy relief), but getting enough to rebuild.
“Your insurance is going to give you money to rebuild what you had,” he says. “But if your home was built in the ’60s, we’ve changed a lot of building codes. We’re not going to let you build a 1960s home any more. We’ve updated our laws and regulations to make your home safer, better for the beach area. If your home had more than 50 percent damage, you’re also now required to meet the new FEMA regulations—build it higher, raise it 14 feet above sea level, that type of thing—but [the government] isn’t going to help you build to that level. The guidelines and numbers that they’re using might work in Mississippi, but it doesn’t work in Fairfield, Connecticut.”
In addition to measures that homeowners have had to make to survive the Next Big Storm, shoreline municipalities are also trying to take what they’ve learned from the one-two punch of devastation to protect their coastal areas.
“You can’t just build a wall to keep Long Island Sound out,” says Dennis Schain, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection [DEEP]. “In the end, seawalls are self-defeating. They’re going to get overtopped, or the waves scour away at the sand and they collapse, or you’re just pushing the wave action and energy to another place, so you may be protecting your property, but you’re damaging your neighbor’s.”
The DEEP has been part of the effort to find better, long-term, environmentally friendly solutions to protecting the shoreline, such as re-nourishing beaches and sand dunes “because they’re the best buffer,” says Schain. “They absorb a lot of water and wave action, and that’s been demonstrated throughout the tri-state area. Places that had healthy beaches and sand dunes did much better than others during the storms.”
Albis is chairman of the bipartisan Shoreline Preservation Task Force created in the wake of Irene to deal with coastal flooding, storms and sea level rise. Following public hearings around the state, the task force released a report that listed 37 recommendations ranging from streamlining the permit process for seawalls and updating building codes to providing low-interest loans to help property owners and providing better transparency of flood insurance policies.
“The main thing we got out of the task force was a raised level of public awareness,” says Albis, who acknowledges that enacting all the recommendations is not fiscally practical. “It’s tough because when you talk to folks about their top five issues, rarely do you hear ‘extreme weather events’ or ‘climate change.’ In many cases, they aren’t aware of the options they have when it comes to protecting themselves along the shoreline.”
Still, the Connecticut shoreline is in better shape this summer than it was two years ago.
“The general sense is that [after Irene] we responded quicker and smarter and more efficiently to Sandy,” says Schain, pointing out that storm-preparation efforts continue to evolve—there are now regular emergency drills as well as other long-term plans, such as creating microgrids that would provide power for wastewater treatment plants or hospitals if the main electrical grid is compromised.
Ultimately, Schain says it comes down to “being prepared right now for the next storm, but also having an eye to the future to address changing conditions.”