“In a time of destruction, create something” author Maxine Hong Kingston once said. She could have been giving advice for the aftermath of Sandy. Two and a half years have passed since Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on our coasts in October 2012, but the topic is not old news. Why does Sandy’s memory linger and why are people still talking about it? For one thing, there are still many homes and businesses harmed or destroyed that have not yet been repaired or rebuilt. Critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, fire stations and power plants, are still vulnerable. There are hundreds of displaced families who were relocated but would like to return, and those who simply gave up and left. Many communities are in the process of recovery, and also hope to incorporate resiliency into planning for future storms.
That’s why Connecticut’s proposal to the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) is so critically important. The State Agencies for Resilience (SAFR)’s 19 partners are committed to a long-term vision that incorporates resilience to the impacts of severe weather, sea level rise and climate change into their core mission and programs. SAFR is dedicated to going beyond simply replacing what was lost in the storm’s destruction and instead working to rebuilding in a way that is safer, stronger, and smarter. The state has an opportunity to build creatively to enhance shorefront communities. We as a society can anticipate nature’s destructive forces and meet it with creatively and intelligently designed places.
While Sandy was not even a hurricane when it hit Connecticut, it still caused about $70 billion in damages. In fact, Sandy was the most expensive hurricane since Katrina. Its sheer size was a factor—a whopping 820 miles wide. The kinetic energy storm surge and wave destruction reached 5.8 out of a possible 6 on NOAA’s scale.
Connecticut was, by all accounts, luckier than their New Jersey and New York neighbors. Only three deaths out of 285 happened here. However, in Connecticut there were flooded roads, downed power lines, and a number of homes actually toppling into the water in a sea of destruction. Other homes and businesses were intact but damaged or even completely ruined by flooding from the storm surge. Many of the property casualties were homes and businesses already damaged from Tropical Storm Irene just a year earlier. According to FEMA, 7,270 property owners applied for assistance. Governor Malloy told The Associated Press that bridges, airports, beaches, boardwalks, and state parks suffered “very substantial damage” from the Oct. 29-31 storm, and he wouldn’t be surprised if the cost to repair public infrastructure runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The $360 million Initial estimate was perhaps the tip of the iceberg.
In talking to Connecticut residents about Sandy, I discovered that even now many don’t know about the extent or location of the worst damage. When you don’t have electrical power for an extended period, it’s hard to get the full story. While the fishing docks in Stonington were hard hit, and there was plenty of damage to dunes, boardwalks and beaches and homes all along the coast, these don’t compare in enormity to the devastating damage suffered in two counties, New Haven and Fairfield.
Connecticut is often thought of as a home for the affluent, with posh summer beach homes; however these same coastal cities are also home to quite vulnerable year-round populations. Highly impacted cities such as West Haven, Norwalk, and Stamford have large population segments with high poverty rates that depend upon multi-family housing and rail transportation in the likely impact zone of future storms. Some homes and businesses that survived the storm structurally intact were condemned in the aftermath because of mold issues that developed from flooding. Not only housing needs help; infrastructure does too. Damaged water supply systems and water treatment facilities require not only repair but improvement to ensure they are prepared for the next storm. Connecticut water treatment plants spilled 25 million gallons of untreated sewage into Long Island Sound when the stormwater surge from Sandy breached facilities. Power plants require protection and power transmission lines need to be built stronger to withstand the impacts of storms. There are known improvements that could be made to the full range of Connecticut’s infrastructure: transportation, communication, power supply, water supply, and water treatment systems, but it all costs money. A LOT of money.
In this Connecticut Post article a homeowner describes how everything in her historic home now must be brought up to modern code, a requirement of federal grants and loans. The impacted cities and towns are also finding their grand lists (value of all taxable properties) way down, thanks to Sandy. Many homeowners and businesses still have to pay mortgages and taxes on damaged property in addition to the cost of relocating.
In all, Sandy damaged 2,853 single family homes in Fairfield County and 1,165 in New Haven County. Still unmet recovery needs—damage not covered by insurance, federal relief or low cost federal loans–total more than $158 million from housing ($135,789,167) and infrastructure ($22,510,508). This unmet need includes eight public housing properties in the 100-year floodplain. When you see these mind-blowing numbers, it’s important to realize that the figures are for loss estimates only, and don’t include the cost to rebuild better and stronger, in order to be resilient for the next extreme weather event. Let’s create something better together.
Peg Van Patten
CT NDRC Team, Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation
Connecticut Sea Grant