Condemned house

Adam Whelchel is Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut.

On the Tuesday as Hurricane Sandy was sweeping inland far south in New Jersey, I spent an emotional day connecting with coastal communities in Connecticut where storm-whipped waves surged ashore past beachfront homes, over roads, beaches, and wetlands that had just recovered from Tropical Storm Irene.

During the weeks since Sandy reawakened the conversation about smarter ways to manage our coastlines and climate change in the U.S., these images from that day have stayed with me:

I witnessed a mother and daughter returning to their home for the first time after Sandy and picking through the rubble to retrieve a few remaining family photos.

I watched all four generations of a Hispanic family dig out sediment from their home with the National Guard to recover their American dream.

I met a restaurant owner who had just finally reopened this past summer, with the help of countless community fund raisers, after Tropical Storm  Irene damaged his property a year ago, only to be back to square-one with nine months of repairs ahead.

l stood with a family whose home was swept off its foundations and carried 20 feet away, knocking over two telephone poles in the process. I stood with that same family as the fire chief drew a large circle with an “X” in orange spray paint on their front door – “condemned.”

I was there as the Connecticut Science Director of The Nature Conservancy, which has been working with state and local officials and citizens on natural and climate-related hazard planning along the shores of Long Island Sound. But by the end of the day, my role as a community advisor on coastal risk reduction and adaptation solutions seemed rather small and abstract. Seeing the tears and exhaustion in these people’s faces drove home for me the human toll of disaster.

As we collectively move forward with our efforts to reduce the risks to people and nature from sea level rise and flooding along our rivers and coasts, we can never forget that our decisions before – and after storm events – directly affect the magnitude of future events. People live and work in these places by the sea and have cherished their homes and traditions for generations. It’s not easy to leave. Many will decide to rebuild in the same places but hopefully and where possible in a more resilient manner.

We have made some important progress here in Connecticut to better prepare our communities for the coastal hazards that have always existed – but are now amplified by more intense storms and higher tides that we are already experiencing today.

In August, Bridgeport – Connecticut’s most populous city – completed a report summarizing recommendations from a series of Climate Preparedness workshops held earlier this year. Following extreme weather events, including Tropical Storm Irene, the October 2011 Halloween Nor’easter and recent tornadoes, this community planning process, completed by a coalition of partners (including Greater Bridgeport Regional Council, The Nature Conservancy, Clean Air Cool Planet and the Regional Plan Association), identified the city’s strengths and vulnerabilities resulting in a call to action.

As with all communities that go through this engagement process, it is about getting started on the path to resilience early. Already recognized by the National Weather Service as the first StormReady community in the state, Bridgeport was also selected as a national case study for addressing climate impacts and reducing risk to infrastructure. Representatives presented at a White House GreenGov 2012 conference in Washington D.C. in October.

Using NOAA’s Roadmap for Adapting to Coastal Risk and The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience and Risk Matrix tools, the Bridgeport workshops integrated maps showing projected flooding from extreme events, like a Category 3 hurricane (i.e., 1938 hurricane) combined with sea level rise, into a community-driven dialogue on risk, choices, and actions. Areas identified as top priorities include:

  • adjusting building codes and land use policy to accommodate flooding;
  • incorporating nature-based solutions and green infrastructure to reduce risk;
  •  improving social services capacity and education; and
  • factoring hazards and climate change into all critical infrastructure improvement and redevelopment plans.

Not surprisingly, the top three hazards identified by Bridgeport include coastal and inland flooding, storm surge from tropical storms and hurricanes, and rising seas and groundwater levels. The unprecedented 13-foot storm surge recorded in Bridgeport during Sandy punctuated these findings.

Clearly we have more work to do. Bridgeport is working towards enrollment in FEMA’s Community Rating System, which provides incentives for communities that take steps to increase resilience, by offering reductions to private property owners on flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.

Across the nation’s coast, and most recently in the wake of Sandy, communities face a difficult situation that needs to be addressed: how do we balance safety, cost efficiency and community resilience with respect for individual choices, property rights, and the natural systems that offer protection?

Living through Storm Sandy has reinvigorated my work to help communities find the answers to these questions. One thing is clear: there are tools, strategies and solutions available to support the economic and ecological health of our coastal communities. We now have an opportunity to build back smarter, taking advantage of nature’s protective buffers where we can, and using lessons from Irene and Sandy to plan wisely for a more resilient future.

[Image: Condemned house. Image source: Adam Whelchel/TNC.]

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