After Irene, questions of whether, not how, to rebuild

EAST HAVEN–Nearly two weeks after Tropical Storm Irene sent two feet of water through the first floor, Rick and Karen Ruggiero’s home on Cosey Beach sits locked up, an official sign stuck in the siding declaring it “unsafe for human occupancy.”

Their terrace, just feet from a tattered seawall and, beyond it, the water of Long Island Sound, is stacked with debris. An enormous dumpster just outside is full. Now they’re waiting while the mechanisms that kick in insurance and other forms of assistance begin to engage.

Like so many other vintage homes along this strip of barrier beach, the Ruggieros’ sits only a couple of feet off the sand. They have flood insurance to cover repairs, and would think about raising the house up, even if they’re not required to. “It’s something we’d look at,” Rick said. “Whether we could afford it or not is something else.”

But circumstances like the Ruggiero’s raise a bigger question quietly starting to be asked on the shoreline in hard-hit communities like this one: Not how to rebuild, but whether to do it at all.

“I think there are extreme hazard areas where we shouldn’t be building, and that amounts to… portions of our barriers beaches,” said Curt Johnson, senior attorney with Connecticut Fund for the Environment, who himself has homes in two waterfront areas. “Not the whole thing, but portions and particularly where there has been severe structural damage during this storm.”

It is a potentially politically and economically poisonous suggestion for many beach communities that derive major revenues from the highly-taxed properties on or immediately adjacent to the shoreline.

“Too soon to tell. To soon to tell,” said East Haven Mayor April Capone, checking on residents again last weekend as they cleaned up around the more than 60 homes destroyed or badly damaged by Irene.

“If we take out that first row of houses,” she said, referring to those homes closest to water among rows often three houses deep, “that’s fine. But then the second row of houses is gonna get it.”

“If we all go to North Haven we’ll be perfectly safe,” she said.

In fact the idea of eliminating houses in flood-prone zones is not alien to East Haven. Just last year the city used Federal Emergency Management Agency grant money to purchase five habitually flooding homes on the Farm River and tear them down.

Several experts on shoreline geology said science is squarely in the camp of no development on barrier beaches. All point out that such beaches, which typically protect salt marshes, by their nature move during storms.

In some cases, sand is sucked out to sea, forming sand bars that eventually migrate back to the beach. But in large storms like Irene, which generate a large amount of what’s known as overwash–extremely large waves breaking over the land–sand is stripped off the sea side of the beach and dumped on the land side. That sand does not move back, and the result is a landward migration of the beach.

Houses can be left literally standing in the water if enough sand moves. That’s if they aren’t totally destroyed, a process that creates yet another danger when broken pieces turn into battering rams that pummel homes that might have otherwise been spared.

Mitigation has been the standard response. Written into FEMA’s tangled rules for federal flood insurance and funding opportunities before and after storms are site-specific height requirements that direct water underneath new homes, totally rebuilt homes, or homes undergoing repairs valued at 50 percent or more of the market value of the building. Those homes, provided they are primary residences, are eligible for funding from a few different pools of FEMA money.

But if the Ruggieros’ repairs fall under that 50 percent threshold, they are likely on their own for the cost of elevating their house. And if they don’t raise the structure, they face equal, if not greater, jeopardy in the next storm.

In Milford, where more than two dozen beachfront properties sustained major damage from Irene, the city secured federal funding to raise 46 homes after storm Beth, a nor’easter that pummeled the area in December 1992. Mayor James L. Richetelli said those homes handled Irene well.

But raising a house is no guarantee. After hurricane Gloria, Anthony Mancini elevated his 1919 Cosey Beach home another six feet, moved a door around to the side, put smaller panes in the big seaside windows and covered them with hurricane shutters.

Irene smashed through the shutters anyway, flooded the basement and tore up the living room. If he hadn’t jacked up the house: “It would have come in here,” he said standing in his sand and glass splattered living room as his extended family washed items salvaged from the basement, “And out through the kitchen.”

Mancini intends to rebuild, but at the same height.

Seawalls regularly come up among homeowners and officials as mitigation measures they would like to see. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, surveying the Cosey Beach destruction Saturday, said she had written to the Army Corps of Engineers requesting they look at the situation with an eye towards a seawall running the length of the beach.

That idea makes shoreline geology experts cringe. Seawalls make things worse, they say.

“At the time these things were built that’s how you did it,” said George Wisker, a coastal geologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Over time we’ve learned that in a lot of cases those walls can actually accelerate erosion.”

Without a seawall, he and others explain, waves break on a beach’s slope and their energy dissipates gradually. A wall reflects the wave’s energy, pushing it higher and deeper, causing what’s known as scour–a digging out of the beach that in turn causes waves to grow bigger still resulting in even more sand loss.

“A big enough and strong enough seawall may protect the structure,” said R. Laurence Davis, a geomorphologist and professor at the University of New Haven. “But the beach goes away.”

Sea level rise, they say, is a compounding factor, bringing with it larger wave action. In a hurricane or tropical storm, the lower barometric pressure also increases waves. And climate change trends seem to indicate there will be more storms.

“Really, it’s usually just a matter of time before Mother Nature wins that battle,” said Ron Rozsa, a retired coastal ecologist with DEEP. He said erosion control structures are not permanent solutions.

How to proceed, who pays for remediation not covered by FEMA or insurance and whether not rebuilding is truly an option, are already stirring up disagreement.

“I’m sure there are any number of properties that should be acquired and moved out of development,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy “Mitigation and the opportunity to access mitigation funds should not be wasted by any community.”

But he said: “I think by and large it’s a local issue.”

Sen. Len Fasano, a Republican whose district includes East Haven, disagrees. He has a house on the beach there, which came through the storm well, though the beach club he owns sustained serious damage.

“This cannot be a local issue; the state’s got to help,” he said. “Maybe the governor should start some sort of task force to look at this.”

Brian Thompson, director of the Office of Long Island Sound programs for DEEP said not rebuilding, despite its serious implications “is a policy discussion that needs to be had.

“You’re putting a lot of valuable property in harm’s way,” he said. “As devastating as it’s been to homeowners, this was not an extremely severe storm.”

DeLauro agreed the non-rebuilding question has to be asked. “But I think you have to think of the precautions that mitigate first before you say ‘Hey look, this is not a place where we’re going to do this.'”