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Lessons from the Long Island Express

Recent extreme weather events have altered the 300-plus years of decisions that have built our communities.
- Dr. Adam Whelchel, director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut

As the tide began to rise and the winds to hum on September 21, 1938, no one knew that the storm about to bear down on them would become legend.

Just a few hours later, coastal New England lay in ruin. Survivors of the storm of ’38 recall staring agape from second story windows as furniture floated through the streets and fleeing from both fire and flood that decimated New London’s waterfront. They also remember their utter disbelief as more than 100 coastal cottages were swept out to sea by waves two stories high.

Seventy-five years have passed since that storm, and now we await the next one. As our climate recalculates in response to decades of exhaust and industrial pollution, a warming Atlantic is giving birth to stronger storms. Monster storms like the hurricane of ’38 are becoming more frequent.

Higher sea levels, combined with more powerful storms, make climate adaptation an urgent priority. Images of distant melting glaciers may be replaced by the immediacy of flood waters inundating downtown East Haven. Last fall, coastal Connecticut just missed the worst of Superstorm Sandy’s fury.

“It’s a shifting landscape of risk,” says Dr. Adam Whelchel, director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. “Recent extreme weather events have altered the 300-plus years of decisions that have built our communities.”

But nature is resilient: Forests, coasts, rivers and towns can endure in the face of these storms, if we build an understanding of this new ecology into our conservation and community planning.

Climate change won’t have a simple solution. Rather, it’s a challenge that Nature Conservancy scientists are integrating into every decision we make.

“The work that conservationists have been doing for 60 years to improve the resilience of our natural systems is one of the major responses that climate scientists recommend,” Whelchel says.

Protecting natural landscapes and free-flowing rivers allows nature to absorb some of the power of these storms. By removing dams here in Connecticut, we’re helping nature adapt. And bringing the science of the Coastal Resilience Tool via sustained engagement with local communities allows local leaders to plan for a better future and avoid costs: economical, emotional, and environmental.

In 1938, an Associated Press reporter wrote that “the greens and commons of New England will never be the same.” Whether through dramatic storms or the slow, silent creep of a shifting climate, change is inevitable – but we are not powerless.

Building Resilience

The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut is working throughout the state on projects that not only help protect our oceans and drinking water, but also increase our ability to bounce back from the next big storm.

  • Begun in 2007, The Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience workshops help town planners and decision-makers to assess their area’s risks and vulnerabilities to storms and sea level rise, as well as take steps to plan for the future. Six new towns became involved with the Conservancy’s coastal resilience program this year.
     
  • In early May, a group of 14 Conservancy volunteers planted more than 1,000 American beachgrass plants at Waterford Town Beach to stabilize two sections of dune that were washed out by Sandy. The grass helps trap windblown sand and rebuild the area’s natural buffer against storm surge.
     
  • The morning before Superstorm Sandy made landfall, the chapter’s Young Professionals planted a stormwater garden to reduce flooding and create native habitat in Bridgeport’s Seaside Village. Residents confirm the project has decreased the number and severity of floods in the community’s parking area and nearby homes.
     
  • The Conservancy recently completed a mapping of priority floodplain lands along the Connecticut River. This new initiative identifies crucial land parcels that provide the most promise for protection through conservation easements or restoration of floodplain forests, which could help protect local landowners from rising waters.
     

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