In Sandy’s aftermath, is coastal retreat in order?

In 2006, a couple who owned a house across the street from Bayview Beach decided to move to Bethel. They were environmentalists. They had heard a local speaker warn about the impacts of storm surges and climate change for low-lying areas of Milford, and decided on an orderly retreat.

Milford’s Plan of Conservation and Development, drafted soon after Tropical Storm Irene, recommends making the same decision. But what exactly is an “orderly retreat?” What might this strategy imply for Milford 50 years from now? Given the character and scale of the problem, some sort of retreat is inevitable, but “orderly” is likely to be much more varied that it appears.

Two “Storm Sandy Rebuilding Workshops” recently announced by Mayor Blake offer what could be called a “retreat in place.” The workshops provide information about assistance from various federal agencies to repair homes, elevate them, or otherwise rebuild per new flood standards. (For a clear and comprehensive six-page primer on federal flood protection issues, see “Federal Involvement in Flood Response and Flood Infrastructure Repair: Storm Sandy Recovery” by the Congressional Research Service:

Rebuilding after storms has been the norm for decades, but people may resist the temptation this time. The Irene/Sandy double-punch has been too tough. Secondly, federal agencies do not have unlimited emergency funds. (During 2011-2012, the average annual number of $1-4-billion-dollar disasters due to severe weather, even before Sandy, was one per month. Sandy will cost over $50 billion.) So, instead of rebuilding, some Milfordites will flee. But fight or flight aren’t the only possible adaptations.

When native Americans lived here, they regularly moved between inland and coastal campgrounds, and Milford residents have been doing so ever since. Whether it is the rich owning second homes, middle-class folks renting cottages, or those holidaying as boarders, a whole history of behavioral adaptation could be told through stories about these seasonal advances and retreats.

Then there are technological retreats: “hard” ones—dikes and dams in the Netherlands; vast, retractable sea “gates” in Venice—or “soft” ones—floating houses, neighborhoods, even entire cities.

Finally, there’s the environmental retreat, the kind that relies on nature itself. Along the Louisiana coast ravaged by Katrina, British Petroleum dollars are being spent on the best flood protection money can buy: Marshlands.

How many of us in Milford are aware that three millennia ago our marshlands stretched halfway to Long Island? They were worth a whole shoreline of seawalls. Ultimately, though, perhaps the only kind of retreat that works at nature’s pace is generational.

Certainly a retreat that’s “orderly” won’t mean a retreat that happens by common plan or command, all at once, everyone marching together in the same direction. Human behavior in a democracy is rarely like the military, no matter how much some people may want it to be, especially during emergencies. Actually, “orderly” could look very disorderly indeed. If “orderly” applies to retreat at all, it may just mean that, slowly but surely, everyone will become able to read the handwriting in the sand.