State’s vanishing shoreline one storm from disaster
As the 2018 hurricane season nears its official end, Connecticut can count itself lucky.
The state has not been hit with a hurricane or tropical storm since storms of Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012 swamped the coasts, illuminating their vulnerabilities to the effects of climate change not only from storms, but also nuisance flooding from sea-level rise.
Yes, lucky again — because a general consensus is that if either of those storms were to hit now, they would be just as damaging.
Despite the elevation of hundreds of shoreline homes, scattered improvements in drainage systems and other small infrastructure components, extensive tree trimming around utility lines, and many assessments, there have been only a few modest statewide changes to boost shoreline resiliency — a concept that may prove to be no better than a temporary fix.
The state’s shoreline cities and towns, while in some cases well-intentioned, have found the process of addressing their problems slow at best and impossible at worst — with issues of money, political will and private property rights often proving insurmountable.
Lending increased urgency to the issue of Connecticut’s shoreline vulnerability is the release last week of the National Climate Assessment that, among other things, details how more intense precipitation and increasing sea level rise threaten the northeast.
“I think we’ve reduced risk, but could do a better job still,” said Brian Thompson, director of the land and water resources division of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. He cited the creation of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation — a joint government and University of Connecticut research and funding clearinghouse, and noted the formation of the State Agencies Fostering Resilience, an interagency workgroup.
But he acknowledged that many communities still figuring out where their problems are, shoreline risk reduction efforts have been slow and complicated by unresolved questions about who will pay for the projects.
“I don’t know that any of us should feel satisfied that we’ve done enough,” Thompson said. “I do suspect that if we get another severe storm that we’ll see significant damage. We need to do more. We need to focus more. The memory fades a bit as we get further out from those storms. So we really do need to keep the attention focused and things moving forward.”
Some communities have managed remediation designed to improve recovery time from an Irene or Sandy repeat. But with few exceptions, damaged properties are back where they once were, meaning most of them are just as vulnerable as they were, if not more so.
Abig part of the problem is the federal government’s flood insurance and emergency management systems, which are designed to replace what was there before a storm. It’s a philosophy that confounds climate scientists and shoreline experts like Rob Young at Western Carolina University, who runs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.
“The biggest problem is we’re still supporting development in places that are absolutely crazy to be developing,” said Young. He believes very little has changed along U.S. shorelines in the last half-dozen years, including the government funding paradigms for recovery.
“It’s essentially a system that is underwriting the vulnerability and the risk of investing in areas that are exposed to coastal hazards and sea level rise,” he said. “People who are still building in vulnerable areas are not making bad decisions, they’re making economically reasonable decisions because federal taxpayers are assuming the risk.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has had a buyout program for many years, but nationally it accepts only a fraction of applicants, instead financing rebuilding in vulnerable locations — sometimes multiple times.
While people like Young often are regarded as purists who see retreat from the coastline as the only genuine solution, they are also well aware that cities and towns are loathe to give up the taxes paid by owners of pricey waterfront property.
“Moving things does not have to be an abandonment of the coastal economy,” Young said. “If you do it the right way, it’s the best way to preserve the coastal economy.
West Haven has been just about the only shoreline community that bought into that philosophy after homes along Old Field Creek were devastated by Irene and again by Sandy. Figuring the lost property taxes would be less than perpetual cleanup costs — to say nothing of the perpetual anxiety of homeowners — 20 of those homeowners opted for what essentially are buyouts through the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the federal Department of Agriculture, which grants floodplain easements to vulnerable homes, though not the most vulnerable ones.
But in the rest of the state, the numbers are sparse. There are a handful of additional property owners in three of Connecticut’s 24 shoreline municipalities that are doing the same as those in West Haven.
Home elevations are far more common – and often required in cases of severe damage to homes with mortgages. But with flooding from lesser storms than hurricanes and sea level rise leading to nuisance flooding, such as during high tide full moons, elevated homes may stay dry, but frequently may wind up being difficult, if not impossible, to reach.
“You’re buying time,” said Andy Keeler, program head, Public Policy and Coastal Sustainability, at the University of North Carolina’s Coastal Studies Institute, who is also an economist and a former member of climate change policy teams in the Clinton and Bush administrations. “Having said that, buying time is a perfectly good thing to do,” he added. “But you have to realize that’s what you’re doing.”
In the meantime, he and others say, communities have to start making longerterm decisions. But given that municipal planning cycles are generally five to 10 years, longer term climate predictions are less reliable than shorter ones, and the general taxpayer antipathy to spending public money for something they may never see means that such planning typically doesn’t get far.
Other complications come from the recognition that it’s impossible to eliminate risk, or at least do it at a price anyone or any government can afford. That leads to a battle over how much risk a community is willing to accept. And once you get into a cycle of rebuilding — with or without risk — the natural instinct is to continue to protect your investment.
Keeler and others recommend that municipalities, and even individuals, come up with a system to trigger actions on some pre-announced schedule for an observable variable — such as agreeing to rebuild a bridge until sea level rise hits a particular point. “The virtue is you’re not making anybody do anything immediately, but you’re telling the market to start to price in —‘gee this is going sunset,’ ” he said.
“It gives people time to adjust. It lets the real estate market drop, but not precipitously.”
Connecticut is taking baby steps, however. Much touted legislation passed in the last General Assembly session incorporates the sea level rise projection that CIRCA is required to report every 10 years, and which is now estimated to be about 20 inches by 2050, as a consideration for various state and municipal planning documents. But there’s no requirement to do anything other than consider CIRCA’s projection unless it involves a project in a coastal zone that receives federal or state money.
Band-Aids, said Bruce Hyde, land use educator for the University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research. That’s the word Hyde and others use for the kinds of solutions towns use now — elevations of building and roads, tide gates to release water, barriers around infrastructure like wastewater treatment plants, and sub stations.
Since people don’t want to spend money now for something they think won’t affect them, Hyde recommends the state’s coastal towns start building in budget allowances for long-term sea level rise and climate-change impact remediation. This would include everything from moving gas stations or hospitals that are in flood zones to figuring out how to make up for the loss of taxes from homes that are no longer inhabitable.
Statistics from various sources show there’s a lot the state ought to be worried about even without another Sandy or Irene — let alone a major hurricane like this season’s Michael or Florence. Any number of interactive mapping tools show large swaths of the state’s shoreline that are already in flood zones, destined to be underwater in multiple sea-level rise scenarios.
The National Climate Assessment offered grim scenarios of increasing heat, drought, fire, intense storms, and floods, with pronounced economic losses for the U.S. economy as a result. The report, which was released by the Trump administration the day after Thanksgiving, is congressionally mandated every four years.
For the northeast in particular the report focused on issues of flooding related to sea level rise and more intense rainfall, particularly in relationship to existing infrastructure that is old and inadequate, and development along the shoreline.
NOAA’s prediction is that when this meteorological year ends in April 2019, high tide flooding will be 60 percent higher than it was 20 years ago and double what it was 30 years ago.
Using tide gauge data and information from the real estate group Zillow, the Union of Concerned Scientists calculated the risk to just shoreline homes — not commercial properties, infrastructure or anything government owned — nationwide from the kind of chronic inundation related to sea level rise. That’s without storms.
For Connecticut, NOAA determined that by 2045 there will be about 4,500 homes at risk just of chronic inundation. Those homes are currently valued at nearly $3.5 billion and contribute more than $52 million in terms of property taxes. By the end of the century, with a high sea level rise scenario, Connecticut would be looking at about 25,000 homes at risk with a value of nearly $15.5 billion and property taxes of more than $252 billion.
Because Connecticut is a home rule state, state government is limited in many ways in terms of what it can mandate. Local regulations on climate change resiliency or land use and other zoning policies are left to individual municipalities to determine.
While it’s clearly more efficient and effective from an environmental standpoint to get rid of septic systems, the state can’t force towns or property owners to do that. The Department of Public Health, which oversees septic, also has no statewide standard for new septic systems to be able to handle sea level rise, which doesn’t even have to be considered unless state funding is involved. ”
A flooded area of Branford during tropical storm Irene in 2011.