Shoreline infrastructure upgrades unlikely even after second storm in 14 months
Guilford –– On a damp, dreary post-Sandy, post-add-insult-to-injury snowstorm afternoon, Guilford Town Planner George Kral surveyed the intersection of state road 146, also called Leetes Island Road, and Sachem’s Head Road.
“It floods at extreme high tides under normal conditions and it floods even more significantly during storms,” he said, pointing to where 146 runs under a railroad bridge adjacent to a salt marsh. “During the recent Sandy, that road was closed under that bridge for several days because of the high water.”
The high water there and elsewhere along the salt marshes that snake through town meant a number of neighborhoods were cut off from the rest of Guilford, leaving those who stayed in them at risk since first responders likely would be unable to reach them.
Guilford, like many shoreline communities, is painfully aware of the effects on infrastructure of increased incidents of severe weather coupled with the sea level rise apparent in Long Island Sound. But it’s struggling with how to address recurring flooding and, more to the point after two devastating storms, Irene and Sandy, in 14 months — how quickly.
“It’s one thing to plan for sea level rise, clearly a long-term phenomenon,” Kral said. “But increasing storm frequency, storm phenomenon is a little bit hard to get your arms around. When it’s every few years, what do you do about it?”
Along the shoreline, Sandy threatened nearly a dozen electrical substations with flooding, closed several airports and miles of road because of high water, and risked power outages at a number of sewage treatment plants and dozens of pumping stations, which could have had catastrophic impacts on water quality in the Sound. But few, if any, communities or state departments seem compelled to make immediate widespread retrofits to infrastructure to prevent a recurrence in the next storm.
“There’s no reason to react in a panic because of storms that we had,” said Robert Smuts, New Haven’s chief administrative officer and director of emergency management. “Reacting in a panic is just as ridiculous a reaction as pretending that the problem didn’t exist beforehand.”
That said, New Haven does plan to work with United Illuminating to upgrade the Mill River Substation, which had to be pumped out during Sandy. But the two areas that habitually flood, and did so in both Irene and Sandy — the east shore area around Tweed Airport and the Long Wharf section from the Sound all the way to Union Station and its large rail yards — will have to wait their turns.
“The list of the projects on my desk from three weeks ago is pretty similar to the list on my desk now,” Smuts said.
Money is the biggest issue. The Department of Transportation has been brutally honest that its capital budget is geared to critical repair and upgrade needs, though climate change is beginning to be factored into how they are done. But for roads like Route 146, which floods in many places in Branford as well as Guilford, the DOT does not have the money to raise problematic sections, let alone the whole road.
“There is simply not enough to chase all the hardening that might be necessary for these larger storms,” said Tom Harley, DOT’s chief engineer, using terminology that refers to the resilience of structures.
And that means even at Sikorsky Airport, which was inundated during Sandy, an ongoing project to redo the road around it will take recurring flooding into consideration, but the airport itself will continue to suffer.
“Do I have x-millions of dollars to take the whole airport and bring it up 5 feet? Not likely,” Harley said. “Are we simply going to fix the runways over the next 30 years every time water comes up? Yeah — probably that’s all I can do.”
At the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Commissioner Dan Esty said there will be an effort to strenghthen or otherwise retrofit the electric grid components and sewage treatment plants that are considered the most vulnerable. But most everything else will focus on future projects.
“When we finance the upgrade of a sewage treatment plant we are moving the electronics that manage that infrastructure to a second-story location,” Esty said. “When we fund a new sewage treatment plant as we have for Mattabassett, it is going to include elements of hardening in terms of what the design standards are.
“The truth is this involves billions of dollars of infrastructure, and you can’t simply say we’re going to redo it in a year or two.”
The Nature Conservancy, through its mapping tool called Coastal Resilience — which charts the impacts from sea level rise and/or storms — predicts that if a Category 3 storm similar to the Hurricane of 1938 were to occur now in Connecticut, it would flood 645 miles of roads, 131 miles of railroad track, five rail stations, 10 airports and 13 wastewater treatment plants.
Adam Whelchel, the director of science for the Conservancy in Connecticut, said the kinds of infrastructure projects that would address climate issues like these can take decades of planning and construction, which begs the question of what, if anything, to do now.
“It’s a really fair question,” he said. “One of the things working against us in terms of coming up with something meaningful for infrastructure, we are all these municipalities. If we’re going to solve this, it has to be collectively.”
And more than a few people think the state has to take the lead role. But that’s tricky, said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a member of the Energy and Transportation committees and a member of the Shoreline Preservation Task Force, created after Irene to look at a range of climate change issues along the Sound.
“So much of what we’ve learned is that action needs to take place on a municipal level,” he said. “It’s a lot to ask many municipalities to make these kind of investments.”
On the other hand, he said, state-ordered infrastructure and other climate-related work “almost comes across as a giant unfunded mandate.
“I think if we set up public-private partnerships, which seem to be part of the new mantra going forward whereby the onus is not totally on the government, we can find ways to work collaboratively.”
But he and others cautioned against hasty actions.
“We don’t want to make investments in the short term that will be jeopardized over a medium or longer term,” said Kral, who in Guilford also faces the prospect that unchecked flooding threatens to turn his town’s salt marshes into standing water, hampering their ability to do what salt marshes are supposed to do — act as sponges and barriers during storms.
There is also the matter of a small waterside substation that could be in jeopardy. And with all properties on septic systems, increased flooding raises the specter of untreated sewage leaching into the Sound. The train station and most track areas seem safe, Kral said, but flooding could mean many people couldn’t actually get to the station.
“The thing is that sea level rise and flooding and related issues are all so very complex, we don’t want to do something in an area where we haven’t done enough research,” said Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, who created and heads the Shoreline Preservation Task Force and whose district, slammed by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, sustained less damage during Sandy. “We want to take a holistic and pragmatic approach that doesn’t cause more harm in the future.”
Whatever the solution, many pointed out that officials of all sorts should not let the crisis that was Sandy go to waste.
“There is an opportunity while this is fresh in people’s minds to start paying greater attention to it,” said Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. And that also means exploring ways for taxpayers to pay for the infrastructure upgrades that will keep them from losing power and mobility in the next big storm.
“But amnesia is one of the main characteristics of politics,” he said. “And it’s important for the political leadership to take advantage of this teachable moment because it’s not going to last for very long.”
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