Waiting for the Next Storm, Part 3: A rail corridor exposed

May 15, 2013

This is the third in a series of stories examining vulnerable areas on our shoreline. For more pictures and information visit the Connecticut Mirror here.

Connecticut's beaches are still struggling to recover after Superstorm Sandy. So in the next storm they may not be so effective at absorbing floodwaters before they reach houses and other critical infrastructure.

The federal Army Corps of Engineers estimates that it will need $8 million just to restore projects the corps was already working on at four different beaches. And that doesn’t even include Rocky Neck State Park, one of the most crowded beaches in the state every summer.

“There were a lot of trees that were washed up on the beach. Picnic tables, there were some boat parts, pieces of canoes, pieces of other people’s docks," says Gary Nasiatka, manager of the park.

The beach here saw more damage than its ever seen, at least in his memory.

You might think: Well, it’s not as if houses were destroyed or people lost their lives. And Rocky Neck is open for business this spring and summer. But there’s something different about this beach.

[Sound of a freight train going by]

Turns out that Amtrak and freight trains zoom by on tracks just 100 feet, sometimes less, from Long Island Sound. This beach is the first and only line of defense against storms for the densest rail corridor in the United States. Before Sandy a huge sand dune protected part of the rail bridge.

“The sand level was a good six feet above what it is now," Nasiatka says. "It was also protected with snow fence so that people wouldn’t cause foot traffic erosion on the dune also.”

Susan Whalen, Connecticut’s deputy environmental commissioner, says the beach did its job; it naturally absorbed storm damage. Some people call that “soft armor,” as opposed to hard armor like seawalls.

“That sacrificial dune actually saved the Amtrak line from being further inundated by storm surge," Whalen says.

But now that it’s gone, those tracks are vulnerable to another storm. Whalen says restoring the dune is a priority.

“That definitely needs to happen before the next hurricane season.”

The cost of moving all the sand, and planting new trees and vegetation on top of the dune to help keep it in place, could go as high as six figures. State park officials say there’s no word yet as to whether they’ll get the money in time for next hurricane season.