One year after Superstorm Sandy's surge rolled in on the heels of Tropical Storm Irene's fury a year earlier, recovery in Connecticut is far from complete.

But not everyone is waiting for government to come up with ways to protect coastal residents and properties so we don't get whacked as bad by the next big storm as we did by Irene and Sandy.

Any really big solutions to the wave and flood damage that rocked us in Irene and Sandy, to the extent that there are solutions, could take years, officials say.

But take a spin around the neighborhoods off East Broadway in Milford, Conn., or Cosey Beach Avenue in East Haven, Conn., or coastal areas of Branford, Old Lyme or Fairfield, to name a few.


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You see plenty of houses up on pilings — sometimes two or three in a row — in the process of being raised above flood levels.

You still hear the sound of hammers and saws as construction crews and, in some cases, the homeowners themselves continue to replace rotted drywall and wind-whipped siding.

Work is going on everywhere.

In Milford, which took some of the worst damage from Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012, almost every house where work is buzzing is in close proximity to homes that saw no damage and others that are abandoned or in limbo because residents are still wrangling with insurance companies or just don't have the money to fix them.

Many residents are still paying rent or staying with loved ones elsewhere as they wait to get back into their wrecked homes.

“You and I, we can go home, take our shoes off, read the paper and watch the news,” said Bill Richards, Milford's deputy director of emergency management and recovery coordinator. “A lot of these people can't do that. They're living on top of relatives” or still staying somewhere temporarily, he said.

“We literally have streets where every house on the street is unoccupied,” Richards said.

Assistant City Planner Emmeline Harrigan said Milford has issued close to 65 permits for a combination of elevation and reconstruction “and we have 250 structures that were damaged” by the storm.

“It's the price of living down here,” said James Street resident Fred “Chip” Monk, who did comparatively well in his 2002 house, which had nothing more than a garage and a wood shop on the first floor, along with plenty of soggy drywall that had to be replaced.

In the wake of the Irene-Sandy double whammy — Irene struck a year before Sandy in August 2011 — Monk is doing everything he can to rebuild with the next flood in mind, with anything important upstairs.

“Next time there is a big storm, I'm going to raise the garage door and go upstairs and go to sleep,” Monk said.

After months of work, he is just a couple of weeks away from finishing. But a house directly across the street from him is up on temporary wooden pilings. Another one a few doors down should also be raised, but the owner can't afford to do that work, Monk said. Meanwhile, several damaged houses down near the end of the street look as if they've barely been touched since the storm.

Monk estimated that his street was 40 percent occupied.

While no exact figures are available for displaced families, Richards said the city of Milford recently sent out 525 “repetitive loss” letters to homeowners covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency'sNational Flood Insurance Program and “as of yesterday, 80 were returned to us by the post office because nobody lives in the houses.”

“People get insurance money to repair their homes but you can't repair your home until you elevate it,” Richards said. “The insurance doesn't pay to elevate your home.”

Several residents said the cost to elevate a house can run $70,000 to $80,000.

Identifying areas vulnerable to floods

According to Brian Thompson, director of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's Office of Long Island Sound Programs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing for a comprehensive coastal study that could greatly benefit larger, community-scale storm protection projects.

Its purpose is “to identify the vulnerable areas ... and begin to identify options for mitigating” the effects of future storms, he said.

But at this point, the Army Corps has only had very preliminary discussions with DEEP, he said.

While the Army Corps already is working on potential mitigation measures to protect some other areas, including decimated parts of the New Jersey shore, “our shoreline is much more varied, with rocky headlands and lots of bays and inlets,” Thompson said.

“We tend not to have long, wide beaches,” he said. “I think the solutions are going to be smaller in scale and more varied, sort of to match the variations of the coast.”

On a state level, “We've been very focused on this idea of a resiliency center based at UConn,” Thompson said. “The legislature in this last legislative session worked on having DEEP and UConn work together on this.”

The center would be based at the University of Connecticut campus at Avery Point in Groton and would exist “to provide technical assistance to towns,” he said. “It's an idea that we're very interested in.”

Pinpointing who's at risk when

But researchers from the Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies at Southern Connecticut State University, aided by students, already are on the ground in East Haven and West Haven, plotting the extent of floodwaters the entire length of the coasts in both communities during both Irene and Sandy, data that eventually will be used to build computer maps.

They plan to do the same in other communities, including Fairfield, Conn., and Old Lyme, Conn., with the goal to create data models that can plug in other variables — including sea level rise — to determine, if a certain type of storm were to hit in a certain year, just how bad the damage might be.

Southern Connecticut's work is led by oceanographer James Tait, an associate professor of science education and environmental studies, and assistant professor of geography Ezgi Akpinar Ferrand.

It was spurred in part by the fact that Tait lives on Silver Sands Road, just upland from Cosey Beach Avenue in East Haven, which was one of the hardest-hit areas in the country during Irene.

While he was high and dry during both storms, “I sort of got to watch” and “I felt bad watching it all happen,” said Tait.

Unlike Irene, “Sandy came in the middle of the night, so nobody knew exactly where it was,” he said. “One thing we decided we could do was map the flood lines” and so far “we have started to figure out sort of where Sandy was.”

The interactive maps the project will create “can predict ... what sea level would be and where high and low tides would be in future storms,” said Akpinar Ferrand. “We can create early warnings and send out maps” to show which areas are likely to be threatened, she said.

The work complements other work that previously had been done, including a Coastal Resilience Tool that the Nature Conservancy has online as a way to help Connecticut and New York communities plan for future storms.

Tait said it also can help determine factors that reduce vulnerability, from the beach width and slope to elevation of nearby land.

Narrow beaches, higher floodwaters

During Sandy, the width of the beach area was a primary factor in determining how much damage a coastal community suffered, Tait said. In areas with a wide beach, the damage was minimal, but in narrow beach areas, the effects were much more profound.

In fact, the waters of Long Island Sound extended more than a third of a mile inland in the Silver Sands Road and Farview Road area of East Haven, Tait said.

“One of the things we're doing is, we're starting beach-stability studies,” grappling with such questions as how much sand might be necessary to restore a wide enough beach to properly protect adjacent neighborhoods, he said.

“The problem here is that the Connecticut coast is just a naturally eroding coast,” which, because of how narrow Long Island Sound is — and with Long Island in the way — doesn't naturally replenish in the summer the sand that gets swept out from the shore in the winter, Tait said.

“The thing that I think needs to happen is, if you're going to live on an eroding beachfront, you've got to put the sand back,” he said.

While the DEEP doesn't currently allow coastal communities to recover sand that gets swept out, even when it's just offshore, “they're doing it in other states,” including Florida, he said.

Army Corp helps with dredging

While the Army Corps has yet to began the comprehensive coastal study, area communities are involved with the corps on other issues.

In Milford, “we're in discussion with the Army Corps of Engineers, trying to get some dredging done in the Housatonic ... and to be able to get some sand to replace the sand that we lost,” said Richards.

New Haven hopes to get some mitigation funds to beef up the seawall off Townsend Avenue in Morris Cove, said Rick Fontana, Deputy Director of Emergency Management.

Center District Deputy Fire Chief Scott Schwartz, who is West Haven emergency response coordinator, said the Army Corps already was working on “re-engineering the shoreline” before Sandy, and that work continues.

But “other than just rebuilding, we haven't been able to get to look at the facts of the sand loss or anything like that,” he said.

Schwartz estimated that the tides “probably took out 15 years of sand in that one storm ... Mother Nature, she's a beast sometimes.”

Dangerous dams

The federal Department of the Interior on Thursday announced $162 million for 45 construction and research projects to protect Atlantic Coast communities from future storms, including several involving the removal of old dams in Connecticut.

Curt Johnson, executive director of Save the Sound, said that in the wake of Sandy and Irene, “one of the things we're concerned about is old, rotten mill dams” such as Pond Lily Dam on the West River in New Haven, upstream of Westville Village, which raises the level of the water 6 feet.

Any future failure of the dam presents “possible danger to Westville Village and also leads to flooding upstream in Woodbridge. Removal of the dam will not only prevent catastrophic flooding downstream but also” will take care of flooding upstream, Johnson said.

It also removes a centuries-old obstacle for spawning fish fighting to get upriver, he said.

The Department of the Interior, through the Fish and Wildlife Service, also released funds for a number of flood-resilience studies that include Connecticut.

“What we witnessed during Hurricane Sandy was that our public lands and other natural areas are often the best defense against Mother Nature,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a press release.

Raising houses and beaches

East Haven Fire Chief Doug Jackson, who also is the town's emergency management director, said that of the numerous houses in East Haven that have been elevated since Irene, only three were paid for by FEMA — and those had applications before that storm.

“A fourth got removed from the program after his house was wrecked in Irene,” he said.

While East Haven — which lost 25 houses in Irene — had less damage in Sandy, part of the reason was that “all the weakest calves in the herd got taken care of by Irene,” Jackson said.

During Sandy, “It was mostly high water,” and the flooding was higher than during Irene, he said.

Fasano said that other things that had been under consideration in East Haven, such as the prospect of creating a taxation district in the Cosey Beach Avenue area to pay for future protection or improvements, were not embraced by neighbors.

But in the Silver Sands area, where Fasano and his family own the Silver Sands Beach Club, a flood and erosion-control district already exists and “we're looking at restoring the shoreline to what it was in 1957,” he said.

“There have been no applications yet,” he said. “The big question is, where to you get the sand?” To barge or truck it in, “the expense is astronomical. The question is, can you do what you did in the '50s and pump it in? We believe that (the lost sand) is right off the beach.”