Devastating flooding from Superstorm Sandy has sparked growing interest in building berms and sand dunes for protection along the Connecticut coast, a swath of land with some of the nation's priciest real estate where officials say obstacles include concerns about obstructed views.
Fairfield, Bridgeport, Milford, Stamford and West Haven are among the municipalities exploring dunes or earthen berms to prevent flooding. The state is interested as well, said Brian Thompson, director of the Office of Long Island Sound Programs for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
"I think as part of an overall protective system, it's something we are very interested in looking at in situations where it's appropriate," Thompson said. "It's certainly intensified since Sandy and Irene."
Sandy slammed the Connecticut shoreline on Oct. 29, 2012, damaging thousands of homes and businesses, power to more than 600,000 customers and killing six residents. Tropical Storm Irene, which struck in 2011, knocked out electricity to more than 800,000 customers in Connecticut and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes.
New Jersey has moved aggressively to seize land to build part of a protective sand dune system along all 127 miles of the state's oceanfront. Connecticut's shoreline generally doesn't front the ocean and has smaller beaches, rocky outcrops and privately owned properties that pose challenges to major dune projects, experts say.
"Connecticut is such a complicated coastline there's no single answer," said James O'Donnell, professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut who recently applied for a $500,000 grant to assess ways to protect the coast.
Blocking views has been a concern historically, but with so many homes being elevated after Sandy, it may be less of an issue, said Fairfield First Selectman Michael Tetreau.
The Fairfield Beach Residents Association is giving away thousands of plants to encourage residents to create or expand their dunes. Paige Herman, the group's president, believes the little sand dune in front of her house likely prevented even worse damage during Sandy.
"It would be wonderful if everyone on Fairfield Beach put up a sand dune," Herman said. "There's a few holdouts because they think their view is going to be taken away. To some extent it can, but I think the rewards outweigh the view."
Michael McCarthy, a 22-year-old painter from Fairfield, was driven from his rental home by Sandy. He now rents a condo even closer to the beach but expressed mixed views about a dune.
"I would like to see something, but I don't want it visually to be an eyesore," McCarthy said. "It's a nice beach. I kind of like the quaintness."
Neighboring Westport created a makeshift sand berm days before Sandy that was about 15 feet high and a half mile long to reduce damage.
"We think it did do some good in limiting damage in some areas," said Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff.
But some residents were upset by the sand deposited from the berm on their property, Joseloff said, and creating a permanent berm would cause an outcry. Meanwhile, the town has strengthened seawalls, he said.
Jim Hood said the berm was quickly wiped out by the storm and dumped tons of sand on his waterfront property, costing him about $10,000 to remove.
Hood, a 61-year-old management consultant and investor, advocated building up a sea wall a few feet more, noting that a dramatically higher wall would be controversial.
"Everybody would be up in arms because it would look ridiculous and property values would plummet," Hood said.
Bridgeport, Connecticut's largest city, is seeking $2.5 million in federal funding to build an 11-foot-high berm at Seaside Park made of sand, gravel and top soil that would be three-fourths of a mile long, said Ted Grabarz, the city's sustainability director. The city is also looking to enhance its dunes and rebuild a breakwater in its harbor, he said.
Some towns and utilities have taken measures to protect against flooding, but officials acknowledge the coast remains vulnerable. Sandy inundated Fairfield with floodwaters so severe that people were trapped in their homes for days and those who evacuated were unable to return.
"If Sandy comes back, we'd have the same flooding we did a year ago," Tetreau said. "Unless we put a 15-foot wall all around the beach area, 12 feet of water is going to get into the neighborhoods. That is an unbelievably large task."