In an official-studded announcement that is turning out to be one of the worst kept environmental program secrets in the state, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy Friday will unveil plans for a new Institute for Community Resilience and Climate Adaptation at the Avery Point Campus of the University of Connecticut.

While the institute’s details are not final and no director has been appointed, the center is broadly conceived as an all-purpose resource for municipalities, individuals and other private and public groups in need of help to plan for climate change.

“The scope of exactly what will be done is still in negotiations,” said James O’Donnell, a professor of marine sciences at UConn who has been coordinating a group that includes experts from UConn and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the chief collaborators on the project.

“The real key is that it’s going to be practical, and applied research and work at the center [is] to provide solutions to help people deal with impacts of climate change,” said DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain.

The first thoughts of a center came post Tropical Storm Irene. An almost afterthought in coastal legislation passed in 2012 suggested a coastal resilience center at UConn. The idea was more specifically delineated after storm Sandy in legislation last year developed from a recommendation by the Shoreline Preservation Task Force formed by Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, after Irene. It was to be called the Connecticut Center for Coasts.

Shoreline damage in Old Lyme.
Shoreline damage in Old Lyme.

But the coastal-only focus shifted as planning progressed. The institute will include as many climate change issues as possible along the shoreline and inland waterways. “It will provide policy advice and hopefully education programs that help town planners and boards about what’s likely to happen and advise them on best practices,” said O’Donnell who drew in environmental engineers, marine experts and even political scientists.

“A lot of the difficulties in taking effective action on natural resource issues are political, perceptual and economic,” he said. “That’s why the problems are so difficult to address.

“This is designed to integrate science and policy so politics is critical.”

So is money – but none was provided in the legislation. A big breakthrough was announced in December. A pollution settlement between DEEP and Unilever would provide $2.5 million to help kick-start the institute. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is providing another $500,000 in the form of a two-year coastal resilience grant. Two other existing grants for coastal monitoring will also be rolled in.

Now, said O’Donnell, comes the process of sorting through more than 100 ideas to set priorities and then a specific long-range plan. “We’re shooting for June 1,” he said.

Those who had helped create the initial sketchy idea are pleased that the coastal concept has been expanded, and they’re downright shocked it’s moving so fast.

“I did not expect such a quick turnaround on the creation of the institute, and I am sure it will prove expedient in the near-term,” said Albis, whose district was slammed by Irene and Sandy. “Many of the recommendations of the Shoreline Preservation Task Force are represented in such an institute, and I would consider it a big win for our efforts and a big win for flood-prone communities.”

Sen. Len Fasano, R-East Haven, a task force member who represents the hard-hit Cosey Beach area and owns a home and business there, said he and outgoing DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty first talked about the concept after Irene.

“I think I would like it to be a proactive organization that helps set up guidelines so that shoreline residents and riverbank people could be proactive in protecting their property and protecting the shoreline in a manner that’s environmentally prudent, economically prudent and allows people to deal with the future,” he said.

Sandy hits in New Haven.
Sandy hits in New Haven.

Another task force member, David Sutherland, who is director of government relations for the Connecticut chapter of The Nature Conservancy said expanding the institute’s focus was critical, not only to include inland flood-prone areas, but to be able to customize assistance for the many different terrains, from sandy beaches to bluffs.

“I think the center holds great promise for being able to work with individual communities, with DEEP, with academic institutions to figure that out,” he said. “Work with property owners, figure out the best techniques to protect properties and natural habitats along the coast. It’s necessary and urgent to get going with that.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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