High Sea, High Risk

Photo courtesy of Sid Gale

High water from a storm covers Neck Road in Madison, leading toward Grass Island. (Photo courtesy of Sid Gale)

Hartford Courant, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007


GUILFORD — Pollyanna Rock has always been a familiar foothold for Kathy Waugh, the spot she swam to as a child to test her mettle in the sea during summer days at her grandparents’ cottage on Mulberry Point.
The Long Island Sound tide rose and fell, but the black boulder never dropped completely out of sight beneath the water surface. Forty years later, she still visits the modest two-bedroom house, though her family rents it out most of the summer. And now, for about six hours a day, she can no longer see Pollyanna Rock.
This is a small measure of how a rising sea is changing the map of Guilford, as it is changing coastlines around the world. The sea has been coming up for thousands of years, following the retreat of glaciers after the last Ice Age, scientists say. But the water level is rising faster now, and scientists say that is driven by global warming.
Whatever you believe about climate change, some things are irrefutable: The sea off Connecticut’s coast rose at least 8 inches over the past century, and it is rising about a tenth of an inch per year now. And Pollyanna Rock is not the only thing that is disappearing.
In this community of 21,000 on the Sound, the higher sea level already affects homes, marinas, roads, beaches and marshes. People have started to assess what might happen, and what they should do about it.
“I’m of two minds,” Waugh said, sitting in the backyard of her cottage, a couple of feet above the incoming tide. The family could build up the sea wall or try to find the money to raise the house up on stilts, she said. But she added: “Part of me feels it will be a very natural thing to happen if the sea swallows this house.”
Guilford is ahead of many communities in anticipating sea level rise: In 2004, the town brought together local officials, scientists and other experts in coastal resources, insurance and emergency planning for a daylong workshop on the impact of climate change.
The town is rewriting its 25-year-old coastal zone management plan – the document that guides decisions on land use along the shoreline and tidal rivers. But the effort raises tricky questions about public vs. private interests, and it is already clear that Guilford residents and officials will face difficult choices in the years ahead.
The U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – which won the Nobel Peace Prize this year along with former Vice President Al Gore – said in its latest report on Nov. 17 that sea level rise will wreak havoc during the next century. Higher seas will drown islands, erode coastlines and disrupt the lives and food supplies of hundreds of millions of people.
That poses huge risks for heavily populated areas like the low-lying deltas of Bangladesh and Egypt. In the United States, beachfront states from New Jersey south along the Atlantic Coast and the low-lying Gulf Coast are most at risk.
The threat is less severe along the rocky headlands, quiet beaches and sheltered coves of Connecticut’s shoreline. But more than 2 million people live near the water. An eroding coastline and higher storm surges could threaten $600 billion in property, roads, bridges, railways and other infrastructure.
The threat is not just a slow, long-term problem, however. Nature has unleashed violence on us before, and most agree it is going to happen again, only next time, it will be much worse.
Leslie Kane drives her well-used Jeep Cherokee down Neck Road, along the length of a small thumb of land that curls up between Long Island Sound and the East River. Kane, Guilford’s environmental planner, is dashing around town to record how high the water reaches today – part of an effort by her and several other residents to document what is happening to the town.
It’s 11:30 in the morning on a bright, calm September day. The Earth and sun just passed the equinox, and the moon is full, which means the tides will run especially high.
Kane turns right onto a road that cuts across the marshy peninsula to a state boat launch, and then stops the car. Two sea gulls are floating in the middle of the road.
This peninsula, ironically named Grass Island, is not so far from turning into a real island.
Flooding like this “used to happen rarely,” Kane said – maybe during a bad storm. Now it happens three or four times a year.
Much of the marsh, on the inland side of Neck Road, is flooded. Across the road, on the sandy outer edge of the peninsula, homes with million-dollar views face the Sound.
According to the U.N. climate change panel, the latest climate models predict that oceans will keep rising at an increased rate – up to 2 feet by 2100. Most of that is from thermal expansion – as water warms, it expands, and the average temperature of the oceans is going up. Some is from melting glaciers and ice caps.
The warming also appears to be accelerating the melting of major polar ice sheets like the one that covers most of Greenland. If that keeps up, scientists say, the sea level will rise substantially higher and faster.
Global warming also is expected to spur more severe storms and heavier precipitation, the panel said. Higher water means that ocean surges from hurricanes and other storms will reach farther inland, that the land will drain more slowly, and that inland floods will be more severe. A higher sea level will push saltwater farther into fresh water systems, including tidal rivers and groundwater.
The benchmark for flooding is the 100-year storm – the kind of event, like the hurricane of 1938, that has about a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. A report issued last July by the Union of Concerned Scientists predicted that if we do nothing to control global warming, by the end of the century in New London, for example, such a flood could be occurring every 17 years.
The Connecticut shoreline has been changing naturally for thousands of years. But humans – beginning with European settlers – have radically altered the dynamic between land and sea. We’ve drained marshes for pastureland and filled wetlands so we could build on them. Man-made barriers such as groins, sea walls and bulkheads forced new patterns of sedimentation and erosion. Roads and rail lines cut off inland marshes from the tides and blocked seaward marshes from retreating inland, leaving them to drown – and removing important buffers between sea and land.
You can see all this clearly on Shell Beach Road, a quiet cove near where Leslie Kane grew up. The road crosses the cove close to the shore, pinching the tidal flow through two culverts that run under the road and up into the marsh. Route 146 and the Amtrak line form additional barriers, cutting across marshland farther inland. The wetlands, once rich with grasses, are turning into mud flats.
On Sept 21, 1938, a Category 3 hurricane blew across Long Island and into Connecticut and Rhode Island, killing more than 600 people and leaving swaths of coastline in ruins. Huge ships were smashed onto the New London docks, and the storm set off a devastating fire. A surging wave of water undermined railroad track all along the coast and in Stonington derailed the Bostonian, a passenger train.
The homes on Shell Beach Road were thrown across the marsh and against Route 146. Today, houses are back on the beach, on stilts.
Most people have no conception of how traumatic the ’38 storm was. From the federal level on down, officials are encouraging better planning, and some concrete steps have been taken: Over the years, the Army Corps of Engineers has built five hurricane barriers in southern New England, including in Stonington, New London and Stamford. The Corps says these systems of dikes, flood gates and pumps have already prevented millions of dollars in damage.
Still, there is a general recognition that if the southern New England coast got hit again like it did in ’38, the losses would be huge.
Insurance companies know what is at stake. They have been slammed by losses from catastrophic storms such as hurricanes Andrew and Katrina. A 2006 Connecticut study found that standard homeowner’s insurance is difficult to find for people living within 1,000 feet of the water, and the companies that handle such coverage charge two to three times more than the typical cost of insuring a home farther inland.
Connecticut ranks sixth in the United States in the value of property vulnerable to storm damage, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York.
Old Saybrook First Selectman Michael Pace has been planning for disaster for years. His town has bought surplus Army trucks, upgraded the emergency radio system and identified the town’s most vulnerable areas.
He also has an eye on the town’s tax base: 50 years ago, most homes on the shore were $35,000 summer cottages, he said; today, those properties are each worth $800,000 or more. A major storm, Pace said, “would wipe out literally several millions of dollars in tax revenue.”
His assessment is in sync with that of the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, a group dedicated to coordinating coastal management. In an August report to New England governors, the council said that a storm of the same magnitude as the ’38 hurricane “would rank as the sixth-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.”
Caren Mintz, an environmental consultant in New York, wrote her master’s thesis for Yale University on how Florida and Connecticut are adapting to climate change. One of the towns she studied was Guilford, where she found both enthusiasm for the subject, and reluctance to act.
“Many citizens do not see any benefits to their interests because they lack the information or direct experience to know that their property could be in danger (e.g., they never lived through a hurricane striking their land) and thus resist adaptation changes,” Mintz wrote.
Sid Gale, a business consultant who has made climate change a personal cause, has been trying to do something about that. Gale has recorded flooding and storms all over town and lectures wherever he can on sea level rise. He helped organize the climate change conference here in 2004.
Kane meets up with Gale at Grass Island during the equinox tide. Camera in hand, Gale gestures toward the homes along the shore, collectively worth millions of dollars.
“That’s the thing about climate change,” he said. “It doesn’t discriminate by economic levels.”

A spring tide at the new moon in September 2010 pulled water up over the parking lot at the Guilford town marina. (Photo by D. Funkhouser)

Over at the town dock and marina, water covers the road leading to the narrow harbor and laps up against a side door of The Mooring, a popular local eatery. The marsh behind the restaurant is a lake.
In the marina, ramps leading to the floating docks angle up instead of down, pushed out of kilter by the high water. Across the parking lot, the town boat ramp is swamped.
The inventory continues down the shoreline: At the town beach, the bottom rung of the public boat racks has been removed, because the kayaks stored there were in danger of floating away during especially high tides.
Flooding occurs regularly in the yards of homes on Seaside Avenue, on the road out to Chaffinch Island and Brown’s Boat Yard, along low-lying portions of Route 146 – including a causeway raised two decades ago precisely to prevent flooding.
David North is not so sure about global warming. He owns Brown’s Boat Yard and serves on the committee that is revising Guilford’s coastal zone management plan. He thinks what we are seeing is part of a natural cycle.
“We see it more often because people are there more,” he said. “In 1965, 80 percent of the houses were summer houses and people weren’t around for the winter storms.
“On Christmas Eve we’re going to have 18 inches of water over Chaffinch Island Road – that’s predictable. It’s happened for 100 years, and it’s going to keep happening for 1,000 years.
“It isn’t going to start or stop because Al Gore put together a slide show,” he said, referring to the former vice president’s campaign to address global warming.
North has not seen “An Inconvenient Truth,” the movie about Gore’s campaign, but, he said, “A lot of things he brings attention to are good things – like using less energy. Americans are pigs – we use it, we want it, we can afford it. If we can be more considerate to the rest of the planet, that’s a good thing.”
North wants the town and the state to do more to protect the marshes and coastline from erosion, using dredged materials from local harbors to build offshore barriers. Raising roads, he said, is just normal maintenance – like the 3 or 4 inches of gravel he drops onto areas of his boat yard each year, to keep it from flooding.
Sachem’s Head is a rocky peninsula that sticks out into the Sound like a huge hand. The area, dotted with expansive homes and great views, would be cut off from the rest of town by a modest flood.
An hour or so past the peak of the equinox tide, water still covers most of the lawn behind the Sachem’s Head Yacht Club barn. Inside the barn, a rough black mark swabbed onto a board 4 feet off the floor records how high the water reached during the 1938 hurricane.
Kane and Gale step onto a metal footbridge to look at the homes that back up to the narrow harbor. Some have stone sea walls, some don’t. This suggests the obvious: When the water rises, it will simply find its way around whatever barriers an individual homeowner has erected.
“You’d better think about a community strategy rather than an individual property,” Gale said. And if you do try to think about a broader strategy, “then the solutions are going to have to require a long lead time.”
People have to get together, agree on what they want to do, and find the money to pay for it. Vulnerable properties in Guilford alone include hundreds of homes, businesses and marinas. Also at risk are the public works yard, the Amtrak line and the Shoreline East train station, major highways, and access roads that are the only way into certain neighborhoods.
Then, Gale said, consider what will have to be protected along the entire Connecticut coastline – I-95, railroads, bridges, sewage treatment plants, oil tanks, schools and an airport.
“That’s a lot of people competing for federal money,” he said. If people wait until they can see more dramatic results of sea level rise, “we will have lost a lot of valuable time.”
“It’s hard to grasp the problem,” said John Henningson, chairman of the committee reviewing the coastal management plan. “We know the elevations – we know what 1 foot above mean high water looks like. It’s easy to see where we’re headed.
“We’re trying to wake people up to this … even in the short term, a foot can be of great concern. If you have a foot of mean sea level rise, [flooding is] going to be happening every day.”
Henningson’s committee meets once a month and has consulted with homeowners’ associations, town boards, environmental groups and other citizens. Their concerns range from traffic problems, public access and property setbacks, marsh restoration and shell-fishing licenses, to people tearing down old summer cottages to build huge homes that clog the view.
Overshadowing it all is sea level rise.
The town faces serious erosion problems and will have to rebuild some protective barriers, raise roads and causeways, build up beaches and dredge some areas to remove sediment piling up from erosion, Henningson said.
But try to tell someone what to do with their own property, and watch out.
“Some say, ‘I pay the taxes, I should be able to do what I want.’ I’m inclined to agree with them, to a point,” Henningson said. “Where is the boundary between that and the public’s rights, your rights, the rights of your neighbor?”
Architect Philippe Campus recently redesigned a home overlooking marshes on Mulberry Point, just down the street from Kathy Waugh. He turned two low-slung cottages into a three-story home with spectacular views.
The house sits in a V zone – the V is for velocity – the federally designated flood zone that means a property is subject to the force of incoming waves as well as rising water during a severe storm. Campus designed the house to withstand a 4-foot wave: The living area sits on high concrete piers; the garage and ground levels are closed off with loose cinder blocks designed to give way under pressure from incoming waves. Water would rush through the openings under the building and drain back out.
As far as the rising sea is concerned, the Mulberry Point house “is the safest in the neighborhood,” Campus said.
But this sort of conversion raises hackles all along the shoreline: Residents complain about losing views and the traditional scale of the neighborhoods when owners raze old summer homes and replace them with million-dollar mansions.
Campus defends his Mulberry Point house: The structure is set back farther from the marsh than the old cottages and uses a more advanced septic system. While the house is taller, it is more compact than what had been there before. And, the house has a much smaller carbon footprint: A geothermal system heats and cools it, and photovoltaic panels help with electrical needs.
While it may be best not to build at all on the water, Campus said, he would rather see a better structure built on an existing property than on vacant land.
There are three basic responses to sea level rise: retreat, accommodation and protection. You move; you compromise with the sea; or you build barriers against it. All involve some sacrifice and can pit public interest against private property rights. The more built-up the shoreline is, the harder the choices become.
While Campus’ design reflects the building code, a lot of older homes do not match up with the more up-to-date requirements.
One form of accommodation already adopted in some form in several states is called rolling easements. As the sea rises and moves inland, so does the boundary between public and private land: Anything below mean high water belongs to the public, and legal precedent suggests that private property owners will lose out as their land is submerged.
Rolling easements recognize this shift: Landowners recognize that they may have to move back and eventually abandon their land, if and when the sea moves in.
Federal rules already require new and renovated homes in the area of a projected 100-year flood to meet certain codes, including putting living areas above where the water in such a flood would reach. One defensive option is to raise the standards – in other words, to force people to build stronger and higher. Instead of a standard foundation, say, you use a steel beam construction. You put living space several feet above the level of a 100-year flood.
Guilford and other coastal communities such as New Haven and Bridgeport are weighing such options, along with longer setbacks; shoring up both “hard” and “soft” barriers such as beaches, riverbanks and streets; restoring marshes as a natural barrier to storms; and buying up and conserving land in the flood plain.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers grants to communities that take certain steps to mitigate the effects of flooding and other hazards. A dozen Connecticut communities – though not Guilford – have signed on: In return, they can get grants to lift houses or buy homeowners out of the flood plain.
The coastal plan committee in Guilford has produced several “working papers” that lay out the issues the town faces. In the paper on sea level rise, they state:
“Ultimately, the homes in the coastal flood zone might find it easier to relocate to entirely different properties, while the Leete’s Island residents and tenants may learn to time their arrival and departure with the tides, as residents of Lieutenant’s Island do on Cape Cod, allowing the road to flood twice each day.”
Down the street from Campus’ creation sits Pollyanna Rock. When the tide is right, Kathy Waugh wades out in the morning with a cup of coffee to sit and watch the sea.
She is 50 and works for WGBH, the public television station in Boston, where she has written for “Arthur” and other children’s shows. She holds warm memories of her time exploring the shoreline when she was a child.
She also feels a responsibility for the future: “We need to do something about how we live,” she said.
Sitting in her backyard, she remembers a storm last spring when the water washed right up past the house and onto the road behind it.
“I expect the house is going to be gone in 50 years,” she said.
“Part of me knows nothing lasts forever. … On good days, I think we’ll fix it. On bad days. I feel the politicians won’t act in time.”

Copyright © 2007, THE HARTFORD COURANT. Unauthorized reproduction or Web posting prohibited.

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