Connecticut, as a coastal state, paid attention when Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in American history, devastated parts of the Gulf Coast, particularly Louisiana and Mississippi, 10 years ago this month.
We know the feeling. It had been 67 years since our state's most notable counterpart, the Hurricane of 1938, wreaked similar damage in southern New England. But the memory was fresh enough that the question was asked: What if a Katrina-size storm struck here?
After a decade, the question still is not completely answered, but some progress has been made in preparing.
Better Communication, Planning
With Katrina, one problem was that Gulf Coast first responders couldn't communicate with one another effectively. In Connecticut, several steps have been taken to address that problem.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has directed all state agency commissioners to comply with the National Incident Management System, which works with unified command teams to manage disasters. The state now operates under five emergency planning regions that meet regularly to plan, coordinate and share expertise.
This past spring, the state's emergency management program received national accreditation from the nonprofit emergency preparedness firm EMAP.
For the past three years, a statewide exercise has been held that lets municipalities, state agencies and volunteer organizations practice their emergency response plans.
All of that represents progress. But Connecticut still has some vulnerabilities that are not as easy to address as matters of communication and planning.
As Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and storm Sandy in 2012 showed all too plainly, several of the state's shoreline communities will fare poorly during serious storm events - and remember, when they hit Connecticut, both Irene and Sandy weren't even Category 1 hurricanes anymore. Katrina made landfall in Louisiana as a monster Category 3 storm (as was our 1938 hurricane).
Our Too-Populated Shoreline
Some parts of our coast are no longer suitable for homes and businesses, and a few neighborhoods are beginning to address that.
A year after Sandy, homeowners in West Haven's Old Field Creek area met with town officials to determine what it would take for the federal government to buy their homes. They had simply dealt with enough devastation.
By December 2013, federal funds to buy out 12 properties had arrived.
Buyouts are often complicated, and may involve federal, local and possibly state funding. But residents of vulnerable areas, such as East Haven's Cosey Beach and Old Saybrook's Chalker Beach, would be wise to investigate that option.
It's a tough choice. Many beachfront properties have been in the family for generations, and the response after a devastating storm is often to rebuild. But because of climate change, with the resultant higher sea levels and potentially more damaging weather, that response is no longer prudent.
When they update their plans of conservation and development, which by state law they must do every 10 years, towns must consider how to restrict development in flood-prone areas.
Diversify Sources Of Power
After a severe weather event, a top concern is restoring electric power. Although some steps have been taken to improve restoration - such as utilities' working more closely with cities and towns to clear roads blocked with wires - much needs to be done.
Put simply, Connecticut is still way too dependent on the massive electricity grid.
This state does have a program to support local energy generation, but it should be greatly expanded.
More so-called microgrids are needed to power vital places such as cellphone towers, hospitals, sewage treatment plants, gas stations and drugstores. Making these independent of the main grid will help ensure that after a big storm, these important services are up as quickly as possible.
When it comes to planning, complacency is the enemy. On this 10th anniversary of Katrina, look at some of the footage of New Orleans and think "New Haven" or "New London." It could happen here, but with more preparation, Connecticut can bounce back.
HAMDEN - Claire Rutledge is trudging through the swampy, weedy, poison ivy-covered and probably tick-infested banks of the Mill River in Sleeping Giant State Park. Those conditions are the least of her concerns.
Her concern is the white ash trees lining the floodplain. She stops by one.
"Beautiful tree," says Rutledge, an agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Then she points up. "If you look up top there, see how few leaves it has left? Not much."
The bare treetop - repeated on just about every ash tree Rutledge comes across - is a telltale sign of infestation by the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive beetle that jumped the Hudson River into Connecticut three summers ago, a decade after it first arrived in the Detroit area from Asia. It's now in 70 Connecticut cities and towns and all but one county - Windham, but the metallic green-colored critters are right on its border.
This summer the beetle represents only one of many invasive species the state's natural science community is wrestling with. It's an unexpectedly busy summer. with a new beetle attacking pine trees, a serious re-emergence of gypsy moths, a migrating mosquito that can carry dangerous diseases, enormous numbers of ticks and the unrelenting march of dozens of invasive plants.
"So we've got a few problems to deal with," laughs Theodore Andreadis, the Experiment Station's director. "Of course once they come in, without their natural complement of enemies, they usually cause havoc. That's a constant battle."
Emerald ash borer
Andreadis and his scientific brethren generally attribute invasions of non-native species to the increasing global movement of people and products. That's thought to be how the Emerald Ash Borer arrived, as well as the Asian long-horned beetle, an even more destructive tree pest that so far has not entered Connecticut from Massachusetts, where it's been for years.
But many now believe climate change could also be playing a role - a prospect that is more troubling. While there is some possibility of controlling the global movement of hitchhiking pests and curtailing domestic invasive movement through actions such as prohibiting the transport of firewood, there is almost no possibility of that when climate change or its accompanying weather extremes are propelling factors.
"That is very true," said Bill Hyatt, natural resources bureau chief at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). "As conditions warm, the habitat is going to become less suitable for some native species, less suitable for some established non-native species, more suitable for others. There's going be influxes of more southerly species, and what that sets up is a pattern of disruption, and any time you have a pattern of disruption it creates an opportunity for non-native, invasive species to gain a foothold."
He pointed to hydrilla, an aquatic invasive that came to the U.S. decades ago as an aquarium plant. It's more of a problem in the south, but has come into Connecticut. "It is also one of our concerns," he said, "that Connecticut would become over time a more hospitable environment."
Among the newest and most worrisome invasives he and others cited is the Asian tiger mosquito. It can carry Dengue Fever and a painful virus called Chikungunya. It is most suited to tropical areas but has come into Connecticut in recent years.
The latest arrival is the southern pine beetle.
Boston - Gov. Charlie Baker has formed a seven-member panel to advocate for the 78 cities and towns along the Massachusetts coastline.
The Seaport Economic Council will be chaired by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who says the maritime economy remains a vital part of the state with "untapped potential for growth."
Baker issued an executive order Monday citing marine science, tourism, clean energy and the seafood industry as major elements of the coastal economy.
He also said the communities must be made more resilient to the threats posed by rising sea levels and extreme weather events.
Among those joining Polito on the council is Carolyn Kirk, the former mayor of Gloucester and now the deputy state secretary for housing and economic development, and the current mayors of Quincy, Salem and Gloucester.
August 13, 2015 - Calif. sets guidelines to help communities brace for a 4-foot sea-level rise by 2100, ClimateWire | Brittany Patterson
California's coastal governing board yesterday adopted guidelines aimed at helping local
governments and development entities deal with projected rising sea levels.
In a unanimous decision, the California Coastal Commission accepted the "Sea Level Rise
Policy Guidance." The document, described as a "menu of options," includes strategies for
adaptation, incorporating sea-level rise into coastal development plans and a primer on the
climate science assessing rising seas.
Communities along the state's more than 800 miles of coastline can expect to see oceans rise
upward of 4 feet in many places by 2100. As of last July, more than 21 million people lived in
California's coastal counties, and the coastal and ocean economy brings in about $40 billion,
according to figures cited in the commission's report.
The guiding document, which was first released for public review in October 2013 and received
more than 130 public comments, will serve as "interpretive guidelines" and does not issue new
regulations, said Charles Lester, executive director of the California Coastal Commission.
"We've had a lot of folks in local governments asking for guidance on the particular challenge of
sea-level rise, which is why we embarked on this effort," he said during the commission's
meeting in Chula Vista, Calif., yesterday. "This is new guidance, but really it's an extension of
what we've been doing for 40 years."
Beaches are facing off against a changing climate, and they're losing ground. Literally.
Waves, currents, storms and people all move the sand that make beaches, well, beaches. But a
combination of rising sea levels, stronger coastal storms and coastal development means that
sandy shorelines are increasingly disappearing, leaving the millions who live there facing major
challenges in a warming world.
"Sea level rise of one foot or a foot and a half per century is basically inundating and drowning
the shoreline," Norbert Psuty, professor of coastal geomorphology at Rutgers University, said.
A common solution to beach erosion is beach nourishment, a process that pumps sand from
dredging ships offshore to replace the lost sand on the beach. But this process is time consuming
and costly and often needs to be repeated every few years to maintain the beach.
"As a short term solution, it's OK if you're doing this to allow for changes to be made to reduce
the infrastructure and to allow the system to return to quasi-natural state," Psuty said.
Yet, the motive behind beach nourishment often has more to do with protecting shoreline
property and the tourism industry from rising seas than allowing beaches to return to their natural
"Development is absolutely responsible for the majority of the beach nourishment," Andrew
Coburn, assistant director of The Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western
Carolina University, said. "Well over 99 percent of the shorelines that are nourished are
developed so there is some economic value placed behind them."
Sea level has risen about eight inches since 1900 as climate change has melted land ice and
warmed the ocean, but the rate is projected to increase as temperatures rise. According to the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, oceans could reach 3-5 feet higher by century's end
and as much as 20 feet higher in the more distant future.
As the waters rise higher, beach nourishment projects are likely going to become more frequent.
Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population lives near the coast. The encroaching ocean could
displace millions of people, which may explain why federal and state governments spend
millions of dollars each year to restore beaches.
But the price tag for the never-ending battle may soon be too much. The price to nourish a beach
can be as much as several million dollars; one project to restore Miami Beach cost the county
more than $18 million in 2001.
"The cost per cubic yard of sand has steadily gone up, and the price of nourishment has gone up
significantly," Coburn said. "At some point, a lot of places are not going to be able to afford it."
The Western Carolina University program has compiled an interactive database of the beach
nourishment projects across the U.S. According to the database, there have been nearly 2,000
beach nourishment projects since the practice began in 1922.
Regions with heavy shoreline development and moderate erosion rates, like the Florida coast or
the Jersey Shore, are facing some of the greatest challenges from erosion, Coburn said.
Florida has the highest number of restoration projects, with more than 460 episodes of beach
nourishment. New Jersey has completed a total of 322 projects including 20 emergency
nourishment projects on its beaches in the wake of Sandy in 2012.
Other solutions to beach erosion have fallen out of favor. Seawalls and jetties can help, but may
eventually cause problems elsewhere on the beach. Offshore breakwaters, or large piles of rocks
parallel to the shore that cause waves to break farther out, reduce wave action on the beach, but
only in certain areas.
"The very best option to maintain beaches would be to allow them to shift, to respond to the
driving forces," Psuty said. "They'll only be retained if they're allowed to migrate. That's easier
said than done, obviously."
These approaches to erosion, including beach nourishment, are often seen as only band-aid
solutions that many beach communities use to postpone the alternative: moving, and
surrendering homes, businesses and vacation spots to the shifting sands.
"In the future, in a lot of places, moving is going to be the only solution," Coburn said.
SHARON, Vt. - During tropical storm Irene in 2011, small streams roared like gigantic fire
hoses, washing away or severely damaging hundreds of bridges and culverts across Vermont,
including Fay Brook Bridge, which had stood for more than 80 years in a narrow valley outside
this tiny village.
Due to climate change, extreme storms and destructive flooding have increased nationally -
especially in the Northeast. And here in Sharon, town officials knew after Irene that they needed
to replace the Fay Brook Bridge with a sturdier structure. They had heard members of President
Barack Obama's administration tout the need to make communities more resilient to climate
change. So they were flabbergasted when the Federal Emergency Management Agency insisted
that the government would help fund the project only if Sharon replaced the bridge "in kind,"
meaning without making it bigger and stronger to withstand a greater quantity and velocity of
A January executive order, yet to be implemented, called for a new standard to enable federally
funded projects to withstand greater flooding predicted with climate change and "ensure that
projects funded with taxpayer dollars last as long as intended."
In an earlier action in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, FEMA announced a new policy
that allows communities to consider sea level rise when rebuilding with federal dollars after
disasters. But experts caution that true reform will require Congress to rewrite the Stafford Act,
the basis for FEMA's rules, which purposely prevents FEMA from upgrading infrastructure.
Despite the agency's recognition of the problem and its efforts to help communities use its funds
for climate preparedness, Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor at Southern Illinois University,
believes that "it is the statutes, which Congress has given them, which limit what [FEMA] can
Meanwhile, says Jessica Grannis, a lawyer with the Climate Center at Georgetown University
Law School, "The problem is that we're going to be putting people and property back in harm's
way, and the money could potentially be wasted."
The water began turning a barely perceptible brownish-green in early May, a sign that algae were
present and growing in the waters of Monterey Bay. By the end of month, Raphael Kudela, a
professor of ocean sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his team, who run a
regional algae monitoring project, were measuring some of the highest levels of the neurotoxin
domoic acid ever observed in the region.
Although domoic acid, produced by marine diatoms of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia, is a naturally
occurring toxin, during a toxic algal bloom, it accumulates at dangerous levels in shellfish and
small fish like sardines and anchovies, which are then eaten by larger marine creatures and
humans. Contaminated seafood can cause nausea and vomiting in people. At high levels, the
toxin can cause brain damage, memory loss and even death.
Today, the algae bloom observed in Monterey Bay waters has morphed into what some
researchers suspect could be the largest ever recorded, stretching from central California all the
way up to Alaska. Currently, the bloom is estimated at 40 miles wide and goes 650 feet deep into
the Pacific Ocean.
"It's a pretty massive bloom," said Kudela, who runs the regional monitoring project with
funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ecology and
Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms program.
"This event may be related to the unusually warm water conditions we've been having, and this
year that warm water has spread all along the West Coast, from Washington to southern
California," he said in a June blog post on the university's news site.
Algae blooms -- which can occur in fresh and ocean waters and typically consist of a buildup of
microscopic phytoplankton species of algae -- are normal occurrences. However, increasingly,
scientists have observed an uptick in harmful algal blooms, which produce natural toxins such as
domoic acid and can lead to shellfish poisonings and large marine species mortality events.
The National Science Foundation has bankrolled a $12 million initiative called the Urban
Resilience to Extreme Weather-Related Events Sustainable Research Network (UREx SRN),
which launched Friday. The five-year effort is a collaboration between Arizona State University
and the Forest Service and brings together experts from different fields to explore how to make
cities more resilient to extreme weather and other climate change threats.
Cities are not just recognized as major contributors to greenhouse gases emissions but also are
disproportionately affected by extreme weather events, being densely packed clusters of human
population. UREx SRN is a wide-reaching collaborative effort to build a body of knowledge that
will inform the reimagination of cities better adapted to deal with these catastrophes. ...
"The failing in these extreme weather events was that people built and trained themselves to
think that events of this magnitude will never happen," said Charles Redman, director of the
School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, in a statement. "It happens now, and we can
expect them to happen more frequently in the future!" ...
This network will "provide methods and tools to help cities rethink their urban infrastructure and
develop novel solutions that put a city on a more sustainable path," said Elizabeth Larry, who
leads urban research at the Forest Service, in an emailed response. The research network will be
active in nine cities, mostly concentrated in the United States, with a handful in Latin America.
The core group will coordinate with 50 researchers from 15 institutions in Portland, Ore.;
Phoenix; Syracuse, N.Y.; New York City; Baltimore; Miami; Hermosillo, Mexico; San Juan,
Puerto Rico; and Valdivia, Chile. But as the initiative unfolds, the principal collaborators hope to
rope in other researchers, a host of students, city planners, industry representatives,
nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders to move the ideas forward.
When: Thursday September 17, 2015; 9am-4pm
Where: Middlesex Community College Middletown, CT
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