Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy caused major devastation to residents of Connecticut's shoreline. (Hartford Courant photo / November 6, 2012)

Here's an ugly thought to bring up while people along Connecticut's coast are still struggling to rebuild their shattered homes and lives:

Maybe Sandy wasn't bad enough.

Maybe what we really need to knock some sense into us about how we handle our overdeveloped and under-protected shoreline in this era of global warming is an even bigger, more monstrous beast of a storm.

Last year, Hurricane Irene smacked into Connecticut and caused an estimated $235 million worth of damage, most of it along the shoreline. The state's response was a flurry of studies and some weak-ass legislation designed to encourage cities and towns to change their zoning and development policies.

"It did not require anything," state Rep. Dick Roy of Milford, co-chair of the legislature's Environment Committee, says sourly.

Sandy's damaging winds and flooding are going to cost far more. But so far the public response has had more to do with frustration over ongoing power outages than any desire to make a major effort to do something rational about shoreline development.

Experts say global warming is producing more extreme weather more frequently. The waters of Long Island Sound are rising higher every year and coastal flooding is becoming more common. Many experts believe the combination of more violent storms and higher water levels is a recipe for damaging and hugely costly disasters — to homes, businesses, power plants, highways and rail lines.

State Sen. Ed Meyer of Guilford is co-chairman of a legislative task force assigned to propose ways to protect Connecticut's shoreline. He says he's been hoping the last two savage storms to slam into the Long Island Sound coast would create a groundswell of public opinion that would force serious action.

"But I'm not picking that up," Meyers says. "Irene and Sandy have not been enough of a catalyst to bring about the kind of radical change the scientists are urging."

Radical change such as forcing people whose homes or businesses have been damaged or destroyed to rebuild farther inland or to sell their property to state or local governments. Radical change such as turning valuable beachfront property into marshland or dunes to soak up the power of hurricane storm surges and winds. Radical change such as using the power of eminent domain to take storm-endangered property whether their owners want to sell it or not.

"How radical do we have to get?" asks Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound, a program of Connecticut Fund for the Environment. "That is the question the state has been grappling with for the past year."

The answer may be pretty damned radical.

Over the last 20 years, after huge floods in the Midwest, the federal government bought out thousands of properties in flood plain communities, moving those folks to higher and safer ground.

"The idea of moving whole communities, I don't think we're ever going to get to that point," says Schmalz.

Roy agrees. "I don't think the legislature will have the guts to do it," he says.

What normally happens in Connecticut with potentially touchy issues like this one is that lawmakers listen to the experts' recommendations for dramatic action and then the pols talk about it a whole bunch. "It gets to a certain point where intestinal fortitude is required," Roy explains, "and it doesn't show up."

Schmalz says some of the incremental type changes that may be possible are things like providing federal and state funding for local communities to purchase development rights to shoreline properties. The current owners could keep the property, but would only be able to sell it to the government.

Or public money could be used to help a shoreline homeowner relocate inland rather than rebuild in a storm-vulnerable coastal area.

Roy believes that money, rather than scientific evidence or rational thought, is likely to be what drives states like Connecticut to make at least some efforts to reform development along the shoreline.

Roy points out that most folks who now have homes along the Connecticut shore are wealthy, yet taxpayers are shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to help repair storm damage. Eventually, he believes "People will say we can't keep doing this over and over, that we don't have the money… You can't keep asking taxpayers to keep spending money to put things back up."

With federal and state governments already drowning in debt, storm-related spending is bound to become an issue across the northeast. After all, Sandy hit New Jersey and New York far harder than it did Connecticut.

Three years ago, engineers advocated putting up storm-surge barriers or tide gates to protect Manhattan and infrastructure stuff like the subway system. In the wake of Sandy, officials like Mayor Michael Bloomberg are shuddering at the estimated $10 billion cost of a project like that.

The problem facing pols at all levels is that the cost of doing nothing to protect against bigger and more frequent storms may be even higher.

The standard used in Connecticut (and most everywhere else) for requiring protection against storm flooding at power plants and other key facilities is the "100 year flood." The idea is that you should be ready to deal with a 1-in-100-year type of storm.

Dan Esty, Connecticut's commissioner of energy and environmental protection, says that's no longer good enough. "The 100-year standard of the past needs to be re-examined in light of changing circumstances," Esty told the Connecticut Mirror.

Those changing circumstances included utility companies shutting down substations to prevent catastrophic damage from flooding twice in the past two years, in response to Irene and Sandy.

Changing standards of protection would mean bigger spending by governments and industry to put in preventative measures — not something that's going to be very popular with voters or with Wall Street types.

So the sad truth is it may take a super-monster storm hitting Connecticut to give policy makers the "intestinal fortitude" to get serious.

Something along the lines of the Hurricane of '38 might do it.

That bad boy came along before we started officially naming hurricanes, but it moved so fast and so hard that it drew nicknames like the "Long Island Express," and the "Yankee Clipper." It is still considered one of the worst storms ever to hit New England: when the storm surge and 120 mph winds rammed into our coast, they registered on seismographs in Alaska, according to one history of the storm.

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