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Moving Forward, Looking Back / Storm deja vu and lessons learned -- again

Published 7:52 am, Tuesday, December 4, 2012
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"Trees were blown away all over town, houses were blown or washed away along the shore line at Pine Creek and Fairfield Beach, dozens and probably hundreds of roofs were crushed or damaged, and more than 50 persons were taken in boats from flooded homes ... in what many believe to be the worst storm in the history of Fairfield."

This vivid description could easily have been taken from an article in last month's Citizen after our visit from Superstorm Sandy, but actually, it led the front-page article in the Sept. 23, 1938, Fairfield News -- two days after the legendary Hurricane of 1938 roared through New England.

Seventy-four years separate the two historic storms, but let's acknowledge that the Long Island Sound has often made its presence felt in Fairfield between 1938 and 2012. Here's a partial interim chronology of coastal storms that caused significant to devastating flood damage: 1950, 1953, 1955, 1960 (Hurricane Donna), 1976 (Hurricane Belle), 1984 (Hurricane Gloria), 1992, 2011 (Irene), and of course 2012 (Sandy). The written and photographic accounts of these storms are eerily repetitive.

With every major storm that has ever clobbered the beach, homes are flooded and boats are washed ashore; streets become waterways; people evacuate to shelters or are rescued by boats; trees fall on houses and power lines. And 2012 was by no means the first time that a house has been set afloat in Pine Creek.

The dejà vu experience is even stronger with the photographs. Photos of the beach area after the storm of 1938 would have worked just fine for Sandy if you simply replaced the floating Desotos with SUV's and put the dazed citizens wandering among the wreckage in Gore-tex foul weather gear. And someday, it will be dejà vu all over again at the beach.

When Roger Ludlow brought his small Puritan contingent to these parts in 1639, one thing he observed almost immediately was that the local Indians did not live along the beach, beyond the great marshes that extended a mile or more inland. The reason was simple: if you live near the beach, a storm will destroy your house and maybe kill you, too.

Our forebears therefore resisted beach living for two and a half centuries, using the marsh for hunting, fishing and feeding cattle. An 1880 map of Fairfield was striking for two things: the huge expanse of wetland up to the Post Road, and the near absence of home sites below it. Nineteenth-century Fairfielders did not live along the shore, and in fact considered beach property to be highly undesirable.

By the early 20th century, agriculture was in decline, and there were very few cows to feed. At the same time, folks of moderate means from outside Fairfield started building rickety summer beach cottages. A 1912 Fairfield realty map shows a long row of them in the Pine Creek area. Now, a century later, despite the repeated pummeling of Mother Nature, the beach has been gentrified and the marshes largely filled in and densely developed. In 1938, the population of Fairfield was only 20,000, with much less development below the Post Road. As horrific as the hurricane of that year was, Sandy was even more so because it affected so many more people.

I think you know where I'm going with this. In transforming the coastal floodplain into residential neighborhoods, we've made a serious environmental mistake. Let me hasten to say that I'm not feeling at all self-righteous about living on high ground. When we moved here many years ago, we could just as easily have bought a house below the Post Road. At the time, I had no idea what the natural state of our coastline was, or what important "services" the marshes provided. Without this natural buffer zone, flood waters that would have been soaked up by the marshes smash into beach houses and run freely over paved streets, golf courses, and landscaped yards to wreak havoc -- again and again.

The Irene-Sandy one-two punch should catalyze conversations at all levels about the current and future management of our coastlines. The conversations will not be easy. In the short term, the cost of returning to normal life near the beach is going to go up. FEMA's beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program will be raising premiums, probably by a lot. Building codes in the flood plain will become stricter. Flood plain maps will be redrawn, changing risk profiles of individual homes. Beach homes will increasingly become the province of the affluent -- a long journey from the humble beach shacks of a century ago.

Then there are the major infrastructure vulnerabilities, especially with electrical substations, sewage treatment plants, and shore roads. But even harder than that is the existential issue of what "normal" is along our heavily developed coastline. It's one thing to plan for sea levels rising over a half century, but if we're going to have increasingly severe and frequent storms in the near term, how do we respond each time? Can we afford to be Mother Nature's Bop Bag, getting leveled by storms and popping back up again and again for the next punch?

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: rblumen2@gmail.com.