2012 in Review: Superstorm Sandy
Connecticut's proximity to the sea has traditionally been seen as a strong point, but big storms like Sandy cast shoreline living in a harsh new light. Here's a year-end report from one of the hardest-hit towns - and photos from up and down the coast.
Mara Lavitt/New Haven Register
For some 10 days in late October and early November, the town of Fairfield’s sprawling shoreline area resembled a post-apocalyptic twilight zone: blacked-out, sand- and rubble-strewn, populated only by police at a command post set up at Veteran’s Park, uniformed National Guardsmen manning strategic checkpoints a mile from the water and, everywhere, utility and cleanup trucks.
Many Connecticut towns consider themselves “hardest-hit” by Hurricane Sandy, which slammed the East Coast on Oct. 29. The overall damage here may not have approached that of New York and New Jersey, but Greenwich, Westport, New Canaan, Redding, Fairfield, Milford, East Haven and New London all sustained heavy blows. Among them, the sheer numbers appear to tilt in Fairfield’s disfavor: Over 1,000 trees down, 1,000 homes flood-damaged, 5,000 citizens evacuated, six homes washed out to sea and more than two dozen condemned; sand burying main roads and dispersed up to half a mile from the water.
Robert Kenny, Region I emergency management coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services & Public Protection, toured Fairfield County’s coastline towns shortly after Sandy hit with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “The area hardest-hit by the storm was Fairfield Beach,” he says. “That’s where we observed the most significant impact to families and the most residential destruction—houses damaged and off their foundations and in some cases destroyed.”
The Fairfield Beach area extends four miles, east to west from Ashford Creek on the Bridgeport line to Pine Creek on the edge of Southport, and south to north from the low-tide mark of Long Island Sound to Old Post Road, roughly a mile in from the beach. At Sandy’s height, seawater came within 100 yards of the Old Post Road and the Fairfield Town Hall.
Fairfield Beach Road, the main coastal thoroughfare here, threads the coastline for two or so miles before ending at the mouth of Pine Creek. For two weeks before and then during the storm, First Selectman Mike Tetreau, his staff, and hundreds of volunteers sent phone messages with emergency warnings to evacuate, information, updates and mandatory evacuations to 5,000 beach-area residents, along with other households in town.
The majority of homeowners in the area complied with Tetreau’s evacuation order, including Paige Herman, president of the Fairfield Beach Residents Association, who grew up on the beach near Penfield Reef and witnessed firsthand the winter storms of 1962, 1992, 1993 and Hurricane Irene last summer. “In the ’92 storm, I watched seven to eight-foot-high waves come up to the side of my house,” she says.
Tetreau made it to the town hall the day after Sandy struck, then two days later reached the beach area by vehicle. The first selectman had been able to witness the damage from a police boat that motored up Pine Creek and along the Sound, which run parallel to each other. The devastation was worse than he thought it would be, he says. “I saw one roof floating in the creek, and as we got out to the Sound we saw that houses had been washed out to sea.”
The Connecticut coast is no stranger to significant storms. In the course of a single September day in 1938, what has gone down in regional history books as The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 (dubbed “the Long Island Express” for its speed) utterly resculpted the state’s coastline. Two thousand feet of beach at the end of Fairfield Beach Road disappeared, and with it a ballfield, windmill, and many houses. The 1992 December storm Paige Herman remembers damaged 550 houses. “But this was worse,” she says of Sandy.
Waves estimated at 10 to 12 feet assaulted the beach, ripping away portions of Herman’s porch and foundation. A 20-foot-high dune deposited in front of her home during the 1992 storm, which she had planted with sea grass and roses, now sits behind the house, leaving her more vulnerable to the next storm. The Sunday after Sandy made landfall, a thousand volunteers came to the beach to shovel sand and help with the cleanup. Twenty of them appeared at Herman’s door to help with her battered home.
On Nov. 16, with cleanup still in full swing, the last and hardest-hit section of the beach—the long, thin peninsula between the Sound and the creek, where homes stand within arms’ reach of one another—finally opened to traffic.
“I’ve been cleaning up sand and putting people’s lives back together again,” says Bill Hamilla, a contractor from Bridgeport, who had been at work on Fairfield Beach Road since the immediate aftermath of the storm, daily passing through police and National Guard checkpoints. “I saw 64 inches of water in people’s homes, five feet of sand around their houses—houses totally penetrated, with water coming in the front door and going out the back.”
By late November, FEMA reported that some 6,000 property owners on the Connecticut coast, and another 1,270 inland, had applied for assistance. For Fairfield Beach residents, the agency set up a temporary office at the Fairfield Senior Center.
“Some people will live in their houses again,” says Hemilla, “and some people never will.”
Among those who evacuated were some 400 Fairfield University students, off-campus residents at the beach, who for decades have been the bane of the year-rounders’ existence. Now, their sudden absence has only amplified the eerie quiet of life at the beach. In November, the displaced undergrads were said to be living temporarily with landlords, in dormitories back on campus, and even in the university president’s private residence.
But not everyone at the beach evacuated. Five families defied the mandate and had to be rescued two days into the storm. And at least one other homeowner, who claims he never heard Tetreau’s messages or the knocks on the door, stayed the course.
Bart Belkin, 60, lives with his 18-year-old son on Fairfield Beach Road, one house back from the Sound, in a place built on three-foot-high stilts enclosed in lattice. During the storm, the two braved the water and winds to chop holes in the lattice so that seawater and debris could pass unimpeded under the house and down the driveway to the road.
For nearly two weeks, father and son camped out, building fires at night. At one point during the height of the storm, the water just off their back steps was up to Belkin’s waist. He saw fish swimming in the surf behind the house. Meanwhile, his neighbor’s beachfront home, smacked head-on by winds and waves, had its deck blown to pieces and foundation shifted. It has since been condemned.
“We didn’t leave for several reasons,” Belkin says now. “We were somewhat protected by the house in front, we have access to roads out of the beach area, there are no trees to worry about, and there are things you can do to save your house.” He adds, “We’re also a little tough.”
Fifteen years ago, Belkin had the house storm-proofed with hurricane shutters. “It was the best investment I’ve ever made,” he says. “The shutters kept the windows and doors intact and the water out.” If we truly are in a new cycle of more severe storms and rising waters, such measures may become an absolute must for shoreline dwellers.
Paul Craig, founder of Shade and Shutter Systems in Guilford, has been following and responding to coastal storms for the past 23 years. He echoes others in assessing Sandy’s impact. “This storm affected every coastal town and beach in Connecticut,” he says. “Irene was really bad last year, but this was far worse—it was worse than anything we’ve ever seen.
“People who live in extraordinary locations need to take extraordinary measures,” he adds. “Sandy was definitely a wakeup call, but then Irene was also a wakeup call and so was Bob—remember Hurricane Bob in ’91?”
The problem, as Craig sees it, is that once the water retreats, so do memories. “People wake up,” he says, “then they go back to sleep.”