Brooklyn NY photoNot so long ago, the town conservation director of Greenwich, Connecticut, was focused on maps, meetings, and the occasional field walk.

That was then, now is now. And these are not normal times.

Denise M. Savageau has added a new duty to her job: during major storms, she works at the town’s emergency operations center, monitoring flood gauges and helping firefighters and ambulance drivers avoid the roads she knows are most likely to flood.

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Denise Savageau hears locals saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’  Photo courtesy of Denise Savageau.

“At moon tide, we’re starting to see normal flooding,” Savageau says. “That’s going to be more and more the case.”

Effects of climate change on the rate of sea-level rise are hitting coastal cities and towns across the United States. That is clearly the case in the densely populated 253-mile-long coast of Connecticut.

Municipal officials know from what they are seeing on the ground that climate change impacts have been damaging and threatening roads, houses, and facilities for several years as the rate of sea-level rise and storm surges have increased faster than had been generally anticipated just 50 years ago.

Today’s reality is one of wary planning in cities and towns large and small.

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Damage to house from ‘Superstorm’ Sandy in 2012, Brooklyn, NY. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A few samples:

  • Seattle, Washington, officials are bracing themselves for more storms and flooding in coming decades. an ambitious adaptation plan addressing buildings, transportation, sewage treatment, and more. (Also see Andrew Freedman’s report on Climate Central about flood risks in New York.)
  • A study about the southwest Florida barrier island town of Longboat Key concluded that adapting by “retreating” — moving cottages and houses inland — makes sense in many cases. (See The University of Florida/Florida Sea Grant study summary.)

Looking at Three Connecticut Shoreline Towns

A new study of coastal towns from Virginia to Maine makes it clear that it’s time to get used to at least the low-end of the scale of possible outcomes. “Cost Efficient Climate Change Adaptation in the North Atlantic,” is the work of Judd Schechtman and Michael Brady of Rutgers University, supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sea Grant, and the North Atlantic Regional Team. Their study profiles 34 cities, towns, or regional areas in the Northeast United States.

Greenwich, in Connecticut, like many U.S. coastal towns, has changed building standards in its comprehensive plan. It has altered drainage engineering standards for roads. Those who never had dealt with floods before are finding themselves as of Fall 2013 of living in newly identified flood zones under new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps. Municipal officials are struggling to protect their low-lying sewage treatment plant, and residents visit town hall asking how they can elevate their old houses above the flood waters.

Around the world, it’s becoming a familiar story: The waters are creeping inland and coastal residents envision even more in the future because of this accelerated sea-level rise. How much? Scientists are not certain. Independent broadcast journalist Daniel Grossman, in his book Deep Water, writes: “The reasonable range of possible sea-level rise this century varies from a couple feet to about 16 feet. The difference between the two ends of this spectrum in terms of cost and suffering is huge.”

Two feet of sea-level rise over the course of a century might provide for some management options. But, Grossman writes, 16 feet would “catastrophically damage” coastal properties. “Shoreline homes along much of the U.S. coast, including some of our most valuable property, would be past hope,” he writes.

Greenwich dates its major problems with flooding to at least 2007, when big floods during two storms covered major arteries of Route 1 and the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut’s westernmost town, population about 62,000. Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 brought worse to the already altered seas. Sea level today has reached to just below street level in many areas.

Submarine Capital Has Lost 100 Feet of its Coast

Groton, the southeastern Connecticut town where submarines are built at Electric Boat, has been dealing with the fact that since 1888, its coast has moved 100 feet inland. And the Northeast climate change adaptation report mentioned above points to new research showing that the rate of sea-level rise there has doubled since 1980 to 4 millimeters per year. Groton, a town of 40,000 that includes the western half of Mystic, took part in 2010 in a planning exercise funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Connecticut. One hundred officials attended three workshops, according to the workshop report published in 2011. Attendees heard sobering statistics including that sea-level rise has accelerated, now to about 4 millimeters per year in their region, and that major storms hitting land are more intense today.

They also discussed major changes they are considering, including new zoning regulations to encourage development further from the coast, a review of where town schools are best located, and an effort to teach the public about which areas are most prone to flooding.

The struggles of these towns, and officials’ willingness to change how they approach building and protecting their infrastructures in the face of what they see as a warmer climate mark a veritable sea change for American municipal officials and their local boardrooms. As the 2010 workshop report says, “Local governments are on the forefront of responding to and preparing for coastal threats, and they are more than willing and able to take on the task. Localities recognize the interdependent nature of managing coastal risks from climate change, and that partnership is necessary for successful planning to work.”

Town Plans to Elevate Road to Small Neighborhood

Guilford, the third Connecticut town the climate adaptation report profiles, has joined with The Nature Conservancy and Yale University in planning for climate adaptation. The conservancy developed a GIS-based tool showing how rising seas are expected to change 10 regions around the world — including New York and Connecticut, where the sea levels hover only inches below billions of dollars’ worth of coastal property, infrastructure, and resources; the Gulf of Mexico; the Gulf of California; Puget Sound; the U.S. Virgin Islands; the Florida Keys; and more. The report suggests a framework to assess and act upon the risks these changes bring to local areas.

Guilford, using information it gleaned from the report, has drafted a coastal resilience plan that partners hope will inspire other towns, said George Kral, the town planner.

Pulling Together When Doing So Might Not Seem So Easy

The struggle to adapt highlights some of the profound differences between the rich and the not-so-rich, those who can afford to raise their houses and rebuild, and those who cannot. Making the transition to address a common concern has pulled some communities more tightly together in an encouraging way.

In Guilford, for instance, residents have voted to use local taxes for an expensive raising of an often-flooded road to the wealthy coastal neighborhood known as Old Quarry.

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Old Quarry Road that faces more frequent floods, Guilford, CT. Photo credit: Christine Woodside.

Kral, the Guilford town planner, says the vote shows that residents feel they’re all together in the fight to save property values.

And in Greenwich, officials remain committed to helping residents find ways to stay in their coastal houses even as some struggle to pay bills. That town’s population overall is among the wealthiest, per capita, in the country and the town’s median house sale price approaches $1.8 million. But Savageau says the population includes a block of middle-class families and retired people whose homes for years have passed on to the next generation.

New FEMA flood maps were already in progress when Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012. Residents planning to rebuild were waiting for the new standards to be put in place when Sandy made land that October. Savageau says that residents whose houses weren’t even in the flood zones in the old FEMA maps tell her water had covered their front steps during Sandy, and, with more rain, surely would have inflicted more damage.

The biggest change, perhaps, in the coastal towns perhaps lies in people’s attitudes. They seem resigned to accepting that Superstorm Sandy wasn’t the last of it. More and more coastal residents are going to town halls and asking for advice on how to rebuild.

“People are starting to say, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Savageau says.

Christine Woodside is a writer and editor based in Deep River, Connecticut. She started her career in 1981 in Philadelphia, first as a news clerk at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then as associate editor...