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Thursday, April 26 Opinion

Moving Forward, Looking Back: How can Fairfield's shoreline best weather the next big storm?

On a recent sunny afternoon, I came down from my refuge on high ground to take a tour of "the beach." It's been almost two years since the neighborhood between the Old Post Road and Long Island Sound was ravaged by Superstorm Sandy. I'd only been down that way a few times since, and never for a careful look.

I well remember what Sandy left in her wake. Streets were turned into canals; houses sat marooned and defenseless in their drowned yards; toppled trees were tangled up in downed power lines.

As the waters receded, shell-shocked residents went about making piles of ruined furniture, waterlogged carpets, fried appliances, hazardous waste, curdled brush and unsalvageable clothes at the edge of their dead lawns. The streets teemed with town vehicles hauling debris, and with vans of electricians, plumbers and contractors coming to see what could be salvaged. It was a disaster, pure and simple; it would take many years, I thought at the time, to recover.

But as I drove down Beach Road that afternoon past the Town Green, I remembered why people like to live in this tidy, attractive part of town, with that growing sense of the sea just out of sight as Beach Road turns right to become Fairfield Beach Road. The childlike excitement of arriving at the beach has remained strong in me -- the salty air, the open sky ahead, even before you can walk on the sand to the water's edge.

I doubled back and cruised the streets east of Beach Road, and up and down Penfield, Rowland and Lalley streets. I drove along Fairfield Beach Road past Penfield Beach and the sad hulk of Penfield Pavilion to Reef Road, and then all the way down the spit, tightly lined with beach houses, that separates Pine Creek from the Sound.

The recovery is remarkable. The Sandy cleanup cost the town about $5 million (let alone another $5 million to rebuild the beaches and marina, with Penfield Pavilion yet to be done), but the rubble is gone, the houses are in good repair, and the lawns are green. No houses float down Pine Creek, only boats. Except for a few derelict houses, and some empty lots where houses used to stand, there's hardly a clue that this part of town had been punished so severely 20 months ago.

Hardly a clue, that is, except for the 50 houses that have been hoisted up above the "100-year flood" level since Sandy. A raised house is cranked up on stilts to get the living space above the 100-year flood level for its particular location, which could mean raising the roof peak six to eight feet. The space under the house is usually concealed with a decorative treatment, and a long staircase is now required to reach the front door. There are at least 100 more in the queue. So, the beach area will have more and more towering homes with palatial but vestigial front entrances. But there are about 2,500 homes in the floodplain below Old Post Road.

In many ways, it's inspiring to see the resurgence of the beach neighborhood. But even as we slip back into normal life, the raising of houses and the quandary over just how to reclaim Penfield Pavilion are troubling reminders that Mother Nature has a recurring mean streak along the coastline.

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Truth be told, it might have been a better long-term decision to have minimized development below the Post Road, and preserved more of the expanse of tidal marsh that our forebears found when they arrived 375 years ago. For three centuries, the marshes buffered the storms, but then the temptation to fill in most of the marshes and develop became too great.

The result is that we have a great beach neighborhood -- until the next storm fills up the neighborhood like a bathtub. The destruction-cleanup-recovery cycle of Sandy is only the latest such occurrence, and the overwhelming scientific consensus is that we face a future of more Sandy-like events, or worse.

Raising homes above flood levels is a positive step, but we need to do much more to limit the damage from coastal storms. Fairfield is one of six member communities of the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council, which, among other things, has created and recently updated a Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan. These plans not only crystallize town-specific thinking and planning around natural disasters, but permit eligibility for various Federal Emergency Management Agency funding opportunities for local projects.

Last summer, the town held a series of "Hazards and Community Resilience" workshops to assess its strengths and weaknesses. For example, we have an excellent emergency management infrastructure, which performed very well during Sandy. The marshes that remain help to absorb storm surges. But many homes sit below current flood code, and critical town facilities -- in particular, the wastewater treatment facility -- are squarely in the floodplain. Flooding of the wastewater treatment facility would exact a severe price in public health and repair costs. (And let's not forget that even on high ground, storms bring inland flooding and downed trees.)

Our coastline is one of the special features of Fairfield, but we carry a special obligation to manage our coastline more intelligently for the long term. Rather than just wait for the next storm to tear us up, we must actively consider various plans to avoid losing battles with Mother Nature.

Hate to say it, but it's hurricane season.

(Thanks to Joe Michelangelo and Ed Boman of the Department of Public Works for background information and insights.)

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears periodically. He can be reached at rblumen2@gmail.com.