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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    How local towns are preparing for worsening floods

    Flooded Maplewood Lane in Stonington Borough Tuesday, March, 14, 2023. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    In this file photo, a stranded car is seen on Broad Street in New London early Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, as emergency crews and first responders work to block roads due to flooding caused by heavy rains from a passing storm in the overnight hours. (Tim Cook/The Day)
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    In this file photo from June 23, 2011, motorists make their way through ponding on Bank Street in front of New London Fire Headquarters during torrential rains. Temporary flooding shut down many roads throughout the region as the storms passed through.

    Editor’s Note: To read more Earth Day-related stories, read the next edition of More than a Month coming out on Sunday, April 16.

    Shortly after Brian Sear became New London’s public works director in 2015, a large amount of rain in a short period provided a “wakeup call.”

    More than a Month Earth Day logo

    Three areas in particular flooded badly: Green Harbor Park, Bank Street, and the intersection of Broad and Ledyard streets.

    Following delays and cost overruns, the city in 2019 rebuilt stone walls around the upper section of the park and installed drainage on both sides of Pequot Avenue, using nearly $1.5 million in federal funds allocated after Superstorm Sandy. Sear explained that drainage systems now absorb water running downhill, which goes into a pipe under the road and into the river.

    Sear said on Bank Street, the issue was the city didn’t have the money to replace diesel pumps dating to 1972. But that changed when the city’s stormwater authority started collecting fees from residents and businesses in 2018, and the city has since replaced the pumps to remove water.

    As for the Broad-Ledyard intersection, Sear said that’s an area that has been studied but not much has been done yet. The problem is the flatness of the area, but the city is looking at putting in a pump at Mahan Park.

    According to a 2020 report from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, 61% of Connecticut’s residents live in coastal communities prone to flooding. The Connecticut Institute for Resilience & Climate Adaptation, based at UConn Avery Point, recommends that people plan for a 20-inch sea level rise in Long Island Sound by 2050.

    Sear said the ability for a project to get federal funding depends in part on potential economic damage if the area flooded. A vulnerable spot for economic damage is South Water Street, due to the concentration of businesses on Bank Street, which runs parallel. Sear said the city has hired an engineer and plans to build a concrete wall along South Water Street.

    And in addition to flood defense from infrastructure, there’s the emergency management element for actual events.

    New London Emergency Management Director Tom Curcio, the city’s fire chief, said what municipalities have the hardest time doing is getting people to evacuate. He added that police have two high-water vehicles to extract people from neighborhoods if necessary.

    Curcio credited the public works department for proactively assessing trees, meaning the fire department doesn’t have to “babysit all night for wires to come down,” which used to be the case.

    Sear said almost all the challenges in the past eight years have been around difficulties getting water out rather than water getting in through tidal surges, though the Dec. 22, 2022 storm resulted in tidal surges.

    East Lyme

    In East Lyme, Gary Goeschel, director of planning and inland wetlands agent, said the town is “definitely subject to coastal flooding from storm surge,” particularly in the McCook Point Park area and on Crescent Avenue.

    Inland areas with flooding issues include Latimer Brook, Gorton Pond, Four Mile River, and Pattagansett River. Goeschel said there have been scenarios in the past, though infrequently, where the town has drawn down ponds ahead of a storm by opening the weir.

    A consulting company in 2018 produced a coastal resilience, climate adaptation and sustainability study for East Lyme, which recommended updating the flood ordinance and zoning regulations to include “freeboard,” a height above a building’s base flood level; streamlining flood permit applications; altering roadways; and improving drainage in certain areas.

    Goeschel said the town hasn’t made significant progress on the recommendations, though some work has been done on Hope Street and Black Point Road in Niantic.

    One of the “priority projects” in the report was creating living shorelines, an approach to preventing erosion that uses native plants, stone and sand fill rather than “hardened adaptation” such as seawalls, bulkheads and jetties.

    Goeschel said creating a living shoreline in front of the revetment portion of the Niantic Bay Boardwalk would slow wave action, but this project hasn’t begun and the question is whether DEEP would permit it.

    Stonington

    After the storm on Dec. 22, Sofia Scarano went on Facebook to post a video of the basement and yard damage at her rented home on Maplewood Lane in Stonington Borough ― but most significantly the standing water nearly covering the tires of her Jeep.

    This was the second time in a year she lost a car to a flood.

    Scarano said she and her 18-year-old daughter, who lives with her, track the weather and move her car up the street hours in advance of a storm. But she said she was in the hospital both times she lost a car. Her car insurance covered the first vehicle and most of the second.

    Scarano’s unelevated house is the last one on a street that dead-ends into marshland, and it’s a street that floods daily.

    “It affects my everyday life. It affects my job, my ability to make money, because sometimes I get trapped,” Scarano said. She runs the cleaning business Partners in Grime and sometimes has to reschedule clients, and flooding compromises her ability to do laundry in her basement.

    She has been looking for a new place to live since moving there in December 2021, but it’s not easy to find somewhere in this market. She and her daughter previously lived in an apartment in Pawcatuck, but after the building was sold, they had to find another place to live.

    Elsewhere in Stonington, the Mason’s Island Fire District’s Shoreline Protection Task Force has sought to address the threat erosion poses to Chippechaug Trail, near Allyns Alley.

    The fire district authorized up to $30,000 for a study from an engineering firm, which completed a report in 2021 that recommended a living shoreline. In October, the task force anchored a floating marsh mat, which can lessen wave energy, in Chippechaug Cove.

    Some Mason’s Island residents have attended meetings of the new Stonington Flood Prevention, Climate Resilience and Erosion Control Board, which member Dennis Unites said is not yet in a position to go after federal or state grants.

    He said figuring out next steps is also a matter of integrating with the needs of the town planner, town engineer and others, though the town has been without a planner, public works director or grant writer.

    How updated are flood maps?

    DEEP environmental analyst and National Flood Insurance Program coordinator Diane Ifkovic is in the process of reviewing floodplain ordinances for towns and regions that are getting new flood maps. Ifkovic said the Shetucket River and Thames River watersheds are getting new maps, though their current maps are newer than some other places getting new maps.

    According to the FEMA Flood Map Service Center, the latest flood maps for most parts of southeastern Connecticut went into effect in 2013 or 2011, though the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed got an updated map in April 2020.

    She noted that towns along the shoreline and Connecticut River have newer maps and ordinances, whereas some towns in Litchfield, Tolland and Windham counties have had the same maps since the 80s.

    An update “will be a shock to the system for them. It’ll be such a glaring difference from what they have now,” Ifkovic said. She added, “The old maps look almost like a blueprint drawing. They’re very crude-ish, rudimentary: You don’t see houses, you don’t see aerial photography.”

    She said the updating of flood maps usually has to do with congressional appropriations to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but then “it takes many, many years to get a map from beginning to end.”

    She explained that the process involves FEMA getting information from municipalities on changes such as dam construction and development, doing a field survey, and collecting rainfall data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

    Ifkovic said it’s good to keep in mind that flood maps are a “snapshot in time” and don’t take into account projections or climate change.

    Then there are flood management plans. The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association completed a flood resiliency management plan in 2017, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and its partners are developing a new watershed plan that will build on this. The towns of Stonington and North Stonington are among the partners.

    The stated goals of the plan include making communities more resilient to flood damage, strengthening local policies and regulations around flood resilience, protecting infrastructure, and preserving wildlife species and habitats.

    Those who consult flood maps to make decisions include homebuyers, mortgage lenders, developers, engineers, municipalities and emergency management officials, meaning different flood maps could result in different choices.

    Jeff Caiola, assistant director of the Land & Water Resources Division at DEEP, noted that each map has a corresponding study.

    He said if forecasted rainfall in a 24-hour period equates to a 100-year storm, meaning the magnitude of flood that has a 1% chance of occurring in a given year, one could “pull out the map and the corresponding study to see how that affects my municipality: What routes have safe egress, what routes are not safe.”

    e.moser@theday.com

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