Waiting for the Next Storm, Part I: From New Haven's Nicest Neighborhood

May 14, 2013

As the region struggles to recover from Superstorm Sandy, the next hurricane season is less than a month away. Here in Connecticut officials have their eyes on several areas along the coast that are particularly vulnerable to the next storm. This is the first in a three-part series examining areas on the state's coastline that could be in trouble.

So why is Morris Cove so vulnerable to a major storm? For the answer, you don't have to go any further than Staten Island, New York City.  During Sandy, residents who’d never seen water reach their homes were flooded within minutes, and more than 10 people drowned. The reason? The road bordering the neighborhood is pretty high above sea level, but once you cross it, the elevation of the land plunges. It's called the Staten Island Bowl, and when Sandy’s storm surge overtopped the road, it sent water flooding in.

That same scenario could happen here in Morris Cove, New Haven’s most desirable beachfront neighborhood. Even though it’s in a high-risk flood zone and gets evacuated year after year, you can still hear construction going on right by the water.

“Nice houses, great view. Just, 364 days of the year," says Giovanni Zinn, who works for the city’s engineering department.

We’re standing on the beach in front of Anthony’s Ocean View, a popular venue for weddings that’s maybe 100 feet from the water in New Haven Harbor.

“This here is sort of the protection for the bowl, if you will," Zinn explains. "The land sort of comes up right here at the shore, and then it goes back down into the bowl.”

The elevation right where we stand is around 10 or 11 feet. But as you move farther away from the beach and into a dense pack of homes, it drops significantly, to something more like 4 feet.

“It’s conceivable that a large enough storm would send water over this area here, flooding it, and then start filling the bowl," says Zinn. "Then the bowl will quickly fill with water, and will have a hard time coming out.”

As Sandy approached last year, the city evacuated the neighborhood out of fear that the bowl – also referred to as the “bathtub” – would flood and residents would be trapped. It didn’t happen – but one day, it will, says Dick Miller, head of the engineering department in New Haven.

“I think it’s just a question of when...something disastrous will happen through here, if we don’t do something to protect the shoreline," Miller says.

A seawall built in the 1980s protects part of the neighborhood, and the city’s looking for about $2 million to extend it. Until then, many homes along the beach are in trouble. Miller has seen a case where the sand below a house has eroded so much, part of it sank. 

“The house started cracking, you can see it started tilting over," he remembers.

Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 was actually more damaging to the Morris Cove area than Sandy. Listen to the sound from this video taken by resident Donna Bigda during the storm.

“This is just unbelievable. Oh my god! I can’t get over these waves crashing over the seawall, we’re all getting soaking wet," Bigda says in the video. "Oh my god! Well, I am about as drenched as I’m going to be right now.”

Before development started in the early 1900s, Morris Cove used to be a tidal marsh. Today, most engineering and environmental experts say this neighborhood would never have been built here.