State’s van­ish­ing shore­line one storm from dis­as­ter

The News-Times (Sunday) - - News - By Jan Ellen Spiegel Jake Kara con­trib­uted to this story.

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.

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