Every year, Connecticut has about a one-in-10 chance of getting hit by a hurricane, climate experts say. They add that catastrophic, killer storms like the ones that devastated this state in 1938 and 1955 are far less likely.
But the risk of a Harvey or an Irma charging in Connecticut’s direction is always there. And many scientists believe global warming and rising sea levels will make major weather events more intense and more frequent than in the past.
State and local officials have been working in recent years on ways to reduce the potential damage and loss of life such mega-storms might cause. It was a campaign triggered by the heavy impacts of Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy in 2011 and 2012.
The effort to prepare for huge storms must deal with a complex range of issues. Those include federal emergency funding decisions; the high cost of flood insurance; local development patterns and tax revenues; preserving wetlands to absorb the impact of storm surges; how best to protect vulnerable power grids, highways, rail lines and sewage plants; planning for evacuation routes and storm shelters; and the reluctance of homeowners to give up on flood-prone homes.
Despite the difficulties, James O’Donnell believes “the situation has improved dramatically since Sandy.” O’Donnell is executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation, an agency set up after Irene and Sandy to help local and state officials prepare for the risks that lie ahead.
Connecticut’s power grid is now “much more robust” than it was five years ago, O’Donnell said, adding that emergency planning at both the state and local levels has also improved.
The reality is that no state or community can afford the astronomical costs to provide anything close to complete protection and safety from truly massive storms like the hurricane that struck Connecticut’s shoreline in September 1938.
About 85 people are believed to have died in Connecticut in that hurricane and hundreds more throughout New England lost their lives. The storm surge literally wiped out shoreline communities all along Long Island Sound. Property losses were estimated at $306 million in 1938 — a figure equal to nearly $5 billion today.
A major reason for the huge death toll from that storm was that weather forecasting then was in a fairly primitive stage and there were no predictions of massive danger.
“We have a lot more warning now,” said Diane Ifkovic, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the state’s flood insurance coordinator. More advance warning would offer time for evacuations from the most vulnerable areas.
But the areas of Connecticut’s coast wiped clean by the ’38 hurricane have been rebuilt and expanded, and are in some ways more vulnerable now to a major storm than decades ago.
“A lot more people live along the shoreline now than in 1938,” O’Donnell points out. There is now an estimated $675 billion worth of insured property along Connecticut’s shoreline, according to state insurance records, accounting for approximately 65 percent of all insured property in the state.
Connecticut also has far more trees now than it did eight decades ago, trees that could be blown down on power lines and across roadways. “The scope of these [kinds of major storm-related troubles] could be serious,” O’Donnell warned.
While the Connecticut shoreline is considered the area most vulnerable to major storm damage, Hurricane Diane proved that inland flooding could be just as dangerous. Diane struck in August 1955, just a few days after Connecticut was drenched by Hurricane Connie.
The slow moving Diane dumped more than a foot of rain on parts of the state. The runoff triggered massive flooding, huge amounts of damage, and statewide deaths were believed to number at least 87 people.
Flood controls to protect cities and towns in high-risk areas were built after the major weather events of 1938 and 1955. Dykes and levees were constructed along the Connecticut River in Hartford, East Hartford and elsewhere. Other flood barriers were built in sections of eastern and western Connecticut following Hurricane Diane.
Ifkovic warned that there can be no absolute guarantee that such flood controls would be able to handle every possible storm. “Things can be overtopped,” she said, pointing out that New Orleans was inundated by Hurricane Katrina despite an intricate system of levees and flood controls.
Connecticut researchers are now conducting a study of current flow rates in this state’s rivers and making estimates of how those flow rates — and potential flooding risks — might increase in the next 50 years. “We’re trying to find out how robust our flood controls are,” said O’Donnell.
Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy were nowhere near as devastating as the hurricanes of 1938 and 1955, but federal records show more than 10,700 flood- and storm-damage claims were filed by Connecticut property owners following those more recent events. Payments made under the National Flood Insurance Program topped $340 million in 2011 and 2012.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in recent years has expanded its 100-year-storm flood zone maps for Connecticut. Those maps for each community show the areas most vulnerable to major flood events, and homeowners are required to buy flood insurance if they live in those zones.
No one has totaled up how many people live in those high-risk areas along the shoreline and near many of Connecticut’s rivers. O’Donnell’s best guess is that something like 10-15 percent of the state’s population – more than 350,000 — have homes in flood zones.
Gerard O’Sullivan, director of consumer affairs at the state Insurance Department, points out that not everyone who lives in flood zones actually buys federal flood insurance. There are about 39,000 flood insurance policies in effect in this state, according to state officials, with homeowners paying $800 to $2,000 a year in premiums.
Rising flood insurance costs have in recent years prompted many householders in flood zones to drop their federal insurance. The Associated Press reported that only about half of the 10 million properties that need flood insurance actually have it. O’Sullivan also said the majority of homeowners who suffered damages in Hurricane Harvey actually lived outside the 100-year flood zones.
Both FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program are in serious financial trouble. The agencies have been making huge expenditure in recent years for emergency grants and insurance payouts following storms like Katrina, Irene and Sandy, and major flooding across the nation last year.
The U.S. House on Friday passed legislation that included $7.4 billion in new FEMA aid money to help cover Hurricane Harvey disaster programs.
O’Donnell said current federal insurance policies are contributing to the problems. “The National Flood Insurance Program creates incentives for people to live in flood prone areas by subsidizing insurance costs,” he said.
Only a small percentage of Connecticut homeowners who have been flooded repeately have agreed to sell their homes. State officials say just 40 properties have been purchased under the federal buyout program, at a cost in federal funds of more than $7.6 million. State and local money spent on the buyouts and associated demolition and other costs added another $2.1 million to the tab.
More than half of those homes were in Plainville in one area along the Pequabuck River. “We saw this as an opportunity to help people to get out of bad situations,” said Mark Devoe, Plainville’s planning director.
The sale prices for those homes were based on pre-flood market values — after the floods hit in 2011, those market values would have dropped dramatically. One of the last of those buyout homes on Robert Street Extension was finally demolished earlier this month.
Ifkovic said the vast majority of owners of higher priced homes, like most of those along the shoreline, “don’t want to leave. … These are their dream houses.”
After being flooded by storms like Irene and Sandy, property owners usually prefer to elevate their homes and add other storm protections rather than take a federal buyout, Ifkovic said. “People want to stay, and we can’t force them out,” she said.
Another problem is that local officials are often reluctant to push for buyouts of expensive homes in flood-prone areas. “Coastal towns rely heavily on that tax base,” Ifkovic said.
Environmentalists have long argued that the state could help soften the impacts of major storms by preserving or restoring wetlands and marshes along the shoreline and elsewhere. The idea is that such areas can help absorb storm surges and heavy rains before they start flooding residential or commercial areas.
“Those things do provide flood control,” O’Donnell said, citing a study he helped conduct of one such wetland area that actually helps protect homes along Route 146 in Branford from Sandy’s storm surge. “It’s not a panacea … but there are places where it can and does work,” he said.
It’s impossible for anyone to predict when or how the next big hurricane will hit Connecticut or whether people along the shoreline or those living near flood-prone inland areas will be most at risk.
But Plainville’s Devoe does have one bit of good advice: “Buy a house on a hill.”
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