Alarm Sounded As Waters Rise

Brian Virtue PhotoThe one-two punch of Superstorm Sandy and a follow-up Nor’Easter got local lawmakers asking: How should the city deal with rising oceans and extreme weather brought on by global climate change?

In the storms’ wake, East Shore Alderman Sal DeCola and East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker have introduced a bill to require the city to develop “a comprehensive plan” to address the changes in weather and sea levels that are already happening and expected to worsen as a result of climate change.

Twenty other aldermen signed onto the proposal, which has been assigned to the Public Safety Committee for a public hearing.

Meanwhile, from Morris Cove waterfront dwellers to state bureaucrats, people are wrestling with the question of how best to plan for an uncertain future.

Elicker said the recent flooding and storm damage from Superstorm Sandy in City Point and on the East Shore is “an indication of things to come.”

Storm events like Sandy are only going to become more and more common, Elicker said. The massive flooding and storm damage that occurred in New York and New Jersey “will happen at some point in New Haven.”

In just the past two years, in addition to Superstorm Sandy, Tropical Storm Irene, a 2011 Halloween freak snowstorm, and the early-2011 “Snowmaggedon” blizzards have wreaked havoc on the city.

Elicker and DeCola’s proposal cites a statistic: The sea level is expected to rise two feet in the next 100 years. As a result, hurricanes will inflict more damage than ever before, the proposal warns. (Click here to see the destruction Tropical Storm Irene caused last year.)

Click here to read the proposal and here to read an accompanying letter.

Seawalls & “Responsible Development”

DeCola said he and Elicker have been talking about this issue for some time. Elicker raised a warning flag back in 2010 at a meeting of the City Plan Commission: He called for the city to consider climate change while studying natural disasters in its federally mandated Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Thomas MacMillan File PhotoElicker (pictured) said the proposal submitted last Thursday would have the city look at short and long-term ways to address the problem, including a “laundry list” of things to consider. He said the city needs to identify “critical infrastructure”—electrical substations, the Water Pollution Control Authority, the police station, schools, chemical and gas tanks, highways, railroads.

The proposal also calls for the city to create “short-term action steps” for responding to extreme weather events so that “vulnerable assets” are protected and potential environmental contaminants are contained. Long-term steps should include encouraging “responsible development,” planning for better stormwater management, and construction of seawalls “where appropriate,” according to the proposal.

Thomas MacMillan File Photo“The tide is rising, scientists say,” Alderman DeCola (pictured) said. “We need to make a strategic plan for New Haven.”

DeCola, whose house is on the water on Townsend Avenue in the East Shore, said the proposal aims “just to get the city to say, ‘What are we going to do?’”

It might be time to “build a big levee,” DeCola said. He said communities in Europe have been coping with life at and below sea level for years. He mentioned Holland and Venice in particular.

Brian Virtue PhotoMayor John DeStefano called the aldermanic proposal “something worth exploring.”

He said the conversation should extend beyond simply rising waters and bad storms, to what the city can do to prevent climate change from getting worse. There may be ways the city can “promote the reduction of carbon emissions,” for example, he said.

For example, the city could make changes to the building code to require more energy efficiency, he said.

The city needs to “deal with causes as well as effects,” DeStefano said.

New Haven has a “community of interest and talent” that could be enlisted to work on the issue, he said.

Green Roofs & “Micro-Grids”

Other cities have already seized the challenge. In 2006, Chicago’s then-Mayor Richard Daley got his city going on a “climate action plan” that has resulted in a number of changes to prepare for a hotter and wetter future.

Chicago had 359 “green roofs”—vegetation-covered roofs that conserve energy, improve air quality, and reduce stormwater runoff—as of Fall 2010, including one on City Hall.  Chicago has also been planting swamp oaks and sweet gum trees in expectation that the city’s future climate may be closer to what the southern U.S. now experiences.

In New York City, where Sandy swamped lower Manhattan, Staten Island, and parts of Brooklyn, people are considering creating seawalls and tidal marshes to protect against storm-related flooding and the creeping rise of the oceans.

Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), said “adaptation” is the name of the game. Cities need to “think about bringing climate change adaptation into everything they’re doing.” Click here for more about what the state is doing.

He said cities should first focus on protecting infrastructure, asking questions like, “Where is the sewage treatment plant? Can water reach it now when it couldn’t before? Will water be able to reach it five years from now? What steps do you take to protect it?”

Schain said some treatment plants on the sound are moving electrical equipment to their second floors, to protect it from flooding.

When it comes to keeping the power on in severe storms, DEEP has been “looking at a concept called micro-grids,” Schain said. Micro-grids are sources of power for city centers, independent of the power grid. A fuel cell, for example, could be wired to places like City Hall and gas stations, grocery stores, and hospitals nearby, to ensure that critical services remain available during widespread outages.

Schain said the state has money available for “micro-grid” pilot programs, and just released a request for proposals.

“There’s not one magic bullet,” Schain said. Cities need to make it a practice to consider the implications of climate change with every decision they make, he said. For new developments, a climate change analysis should be among the boxes that are checked.

Whither Waterfront Living?

As for existing seaside homes and properties, Schain said the DEEP’s “mantra” is: build higher, move back, or add sand to beaches and dunes. “Those are the best approaches.”

Click here for Bill Kaempffer’s recent Register article about the state’s rejection of an application for money to build a seawall to protect homes in Morris Cove.

Thomas MacMillan File PhotoSeawalls can be built only with permits from DEEP, because they can have an effect on surrounding properties, Schain said. “They’re not a panacea,” he said. “You get scouring.” The water eventually erodes sand from under the walls and they collapse, he said.

Ultimately, climate change may mean that the days of living right on the seaside are over.

“You just don’t want to be building right up close to the water like people did in the past,” Schain said.

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posted by: anonymous on November 16, 2012  2:18pm

The biggest source of emissions is the transportation sector. Walkability is also the key factor in storm resiliency. 

Unfortunately, the Mayor has taken very few meaningful steps to promote walking, cycling, and transit in New Haven and in fact has approved projects like the widening of Whaey Abenue that make the situation worse.

As usual, lots of hat, but no cattle.

posted by: Rob Smuts on November 16, 2012  3:58pm

It is a good discussion to have - both how New Haven can do our part to reduce carbon emissions and reduce the coming climate change as much as possible, as well as how we will deal with the change that is already inevitable.

Anonymark’s comments notwithstanding, the City can point to one of the most aggressive climate change plans of a City our size.  I’ll elaborate in the hearing, but look at our plan that has been guiding us since 2004 at: Haven Climate Action Plan.pdf

On the issue of dealing with the sea level rise and other effects of climate change, look at our draft update to our Hazard Mitigation Plan at:

The plan “identifies and assesses risks associates with inland flooding, coastal flooding, hurricanes, sea level rise, summer storms / winter storms, land subsidence and earthquakes.”

- Rob Smuts, Chief Administrative Officer

posted by: PH on November 16, 2012  5:41pm

While the idea of reducing our carbon footprint is both important and something we can point to with pride, the response to the inevitable changes that are coming has to be the priority.  For as much as New Haven can be a leader in reducing carbon output, without meaningful nationwide and international commitment to reducing carbon emissions our changes are going to be but a drop in the bucket.  In the meantime, we’re going to be getting pounded with the effects of climate change and need to be able to repond now.

posted by: Rob Smuts on November 16, 2012  6:05pm

The first link I pasted didn’t translate properly.  Go to:

posted by: AMDC on November 16, 2012  8:15pm

The photos that accompany this article are all from hurrican Irene, not storm Sandy.
New Haven better hope that the Cove does not go underwater.  Who will pay the extortionist property taxes if the houses are washed away?
There is no planning for anything on any level in CT.  All we see is reactions to individual storms and the damage done.  There is no plan and there is no vision. It is a recipe for disaster.

posted by: anonymous on November 16, 2012  10:45pm

It’s great to have an aggressive plan. To give credit where credit is due to Rob Smuts and many hundreds of other City staff and contractors, we may have quite a few aggressive plans now given that the city shells out big bucks to come up with several dozen of them per year. 

However, what we’ve needed for the past 15+ years is an aggressive implementation - not a plan - of some of the things that the community said they needed in 1985 and again in 1994 (those plans are sitting on a shelf at City Hall somewhere).  Perhaps people have been noticing more since Irene and Sandy hit, but implementation across the board has been pathetic.  Cutting the budget for street trees, so that we don’t meet our promised environmental goals, is just the latest on a long list of hundreds of costly mistakes.

In fact, this is exactly what they mean in Texas when they say that a leader is all hat and no cattle.

posted by: DavidK on November 17, 2012  12:59am

Relax, the antarctic is building up ice faster then the arctic is losing ice. The oceans are not rising but you do have to worry about the tides and the wind.

posted by: parejkoj on November 17, 2012  12:00pm

I’d like to make a correction to the statistic quoted from the proposal: “The sea level is expected to rise two feet in the next 100 years.”

Two feet by 2110 is wildly optimistic. That would put us at the bottom of the lowest IPCC projection, and so far we’ve been running at the top of of the highest. 1-2 meters (3-6 feet) is a much more likely projection for sea level rise over the next century, and it is likely to continue to rise for centuries after that.

DavidK: you’re utterly wrong on both counts.

1. Arctic sea ice volume has fallen by more than 75% over the past 30 years. Arctic ice volume, area, and extent all set incredible new record lows this past August, almost a month earlier than normal.

Antarctic land ice is decreasing at an accelerating rate, while Antarctic sea ice has increased by perhaps 10% over the past 30 years.

In fact, the Arctic is losing ice area three times faster than the Antarctic is gaining.

2. Sea level is continuing to rise at about 3mm/year, compared with 1mm/year around 1900. Sea level around New York City has increased by about a foot over the past century.

posted by: HewNaven on November 17, 2012  12:03pm

Finally, an elected representative has acknowledged that our community needs to deal with the effects of climate change. Now, how about addressing the impending food/energy crisis? Last time I checked, we were 100% dependent on other communities to provide our energy and food. That can’t be smart!