Waiting for the next storm, Part I: New Haven’s nicest neighborhood

Last November, Connecticut was lucky. Sandy pummeled New York and New Jersey, while largely sparing this state. We may not be so lucky next time. In the first of a three-part series examining vulnerable areas on Connecticut’s coast, we visit Morris Cove, one of New Haven’s most desirable neighborhoods.

(Scroll to the bottom of the story for a slideshow version.) 

On the border with beach town East Haven, Morris Cove’s homes offer a gorgeous view of New Haven Harbor – not to mention several parks and a beautiful beach. Homes there have sold for upwards of $500,000 recently.

There’s just one problem: Pretty much the entire area is a high-risk flood zone. It is the portion of the city that keeps officials up at night when a storm is looming.

“Nice houses. Great view,” said Giovanni Zinn, who works for New Haven’s engineering department. He was standing on a beach in front of houses that are just a few yards from the water of Long Island Sound. “Just, 364 days of the year.”

Originally a tidal marsh, Morris Cove was built up as a densely packed neighborhood between 1900 and 1930, with development continuing as late as the 1980s.

“It probably would not have been built today,” said Dick Miller, head of New Haven’s engineering department.

Simply being on the shoreline in a 100-year floodplain is not the only problem. Morris Cove has been called a “bowl” or a “bathtub.”The land on the shoreline itself is around 11 feet above sea level, but moving farther inland toward the majority of the houses, the area quickly plunges to an elevation of around 4 feet. Should the initial ridge be overtopped with water, the entire neighborhood would flood.

“Then the bowl will quickly fill with water, and it will have a hard time coming out,” said Zinn.

More “ridges” exist inland, where a tide gate along the tidal estuary known as Morris Creek, along with levees, all built nearly 100 years ago, protect the neighborhood from flooding.

The levees reach an elevation of 9.5 feet; if water tops that level, “tidal inundation of the neighborhood would occur,” officials wrote in a city document in 2011.

New Haven recorded a storm surge of 9.4 feet during Superstorm Sandy. Zinn remembers seeing water within 2-3 feet of the tide gate during the storm. The surge did not occur during high tide, which is probably what saved this neighborhood, along with many others along the coast.

“We were lucky,” Zinn said. “Sandy was a definite test of our infrastructure.”

Morris Cove’s topography is similar to the Staten Island “bowl,” a beachfront neighborhood of New York City that was devastated during Superstorm Sandy. After a road bordering the neighborhood at a relatively high elevation was overtopped, residents who lived far inland and at lower elevations were underwater within minutes. More than 10 people drowned.

New Haven was anticipating such a scenario as Sandy approached. Residents were subject to a mandatory evacuation, and the city prepared to send out high-water vehicles and boats to rescue people who would be trapped. It didn’t happen – but one day it will.

“I think it’s just a question of when,” Miller said. “…something disastrous will happen through here, if we don’t do something to protect the shoreline.”

 A seawall built by the state in the 1980s protects part of the neighborhood, but not all of it. In fact, the wall was never finished in part because homeowners who lived along the shoreline wanted a clear shot to the beach in front of them, said Rob Smuts, New Haven’s administrative director.

But now that beach has eroded, leaving those houses in deep trouble. The sand below many of them has ebbed away, causing them to crack and even tilt.  

In the late 1990s, the federal Army Corps of Engineers approved a city project to build a 16-foot stone structure that would protect the houses. But state environmental officials vetoed the plan, suggesting natural barriers like beach and vegetation instead. The project was ultimately abandoned.

After Tropical Storm Irene, New Haven applied for a $1.4 million federal grant to build a seawall protecting those homes, at a total cost of around $2 million. The city and homeowners would also chip in some of the cost.

The city has yet to hear back.

(Click here for Part II: Elderly and Disabled on the Waterfront.)