The 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.)
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.
Elicker (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.
“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.
Mayor 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.
Seawalls 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.