Long delayed restoration of protection for harbor at Long Wharf under way as tons of rocks put in place
NEW HAVEN — Storms can leave extensive damage in a matter of hours.
Correcting that destruction, however, is on an entirely different time table.
More than five years after Superstorm Sandy barreled through in October 2012, work to restore the shoreline off Long Wharf Drive is finally underway.
Complicating the workload, Sandy’s destruction added to the damage that had already been left by Hurricane Irene when it made landfall in August 2011.
Contractors with heavy equipment can now be seen moving 2,522 tons of stone to fill in gaps in the riprap, as well as replace 1,400 feet of the material that once provided some protection along the harbor’s edge.
Riprap is rock or other material used to armor shorelines against erosion.
The unpredictable weather, as well as federal bureaucracy and a need to protect utilities, combined to make for this long recovery.
“The federal government works on a different time schedule than the rest of us,” Giovanni Zinn, the city engineer, said of the process.
David Moser, the city’s landscape architect, designed the restoration, got it out to bid, chased grants to fund it and kept up with the endless revisions for the $400,000 restoration project.
Simultaneously, Donna Hall, senior project manager at City Plan, is advancing a “living shoreline” proposal where plantings will further strengthen the compromised area, an idea that is moving along quickly.
Hall said the consultants hired by the city have done a good job modeling storm events and sea level rise, looking out over a century.
Included in the study was the potential serious impact on Interstate 95, as well as the businesses along Sargent Drive, Long Wharf Drive and further northwest through the Metro-North rail yard, if nothing is done to harden the area against storm damage.
She said the city wants to undertake marsh restoration and, if possible, create a dune environment along the shoreline with a boardwalk that would extend for a short distance over the water. An expensive element, the boardwalk would depend on how much funding they can attract.
Hall said they will take their plans to the permitting and regulatory agencies first and then bring it to final design as they pursue several funding sources, some of which they have already identified.
Rebecca Bombero, director of Parks, Recreation and Trees, whose purview covers Long Wharf Park and the Vietnam War Memorial, was also in on the discussions with FEMA.
“FEMA permitting is very, very time consuming,” she said of her experience.
Given that FEMA’s job is to respond to emergencies, Hall said every time a disaster took place elsewhere, the staff assigned to New Haven would pick up and report to the latest hot spot.
The replacements from FEMA would then have to become acquainted with the plans and do their own assessments.
“That was a huge issue,” Hall said.
She said all along it was Moser who kept it moving forward.
“Dave Moser endured and persevered and just tracked it even when some of our consultants gave up on it because it was such a moving target,” she said. “He did a phenomenal job.”
Hall said city staffers were in a conference room with FEMA engineers signing onto the specifics of an agreement for repairs due to Irene, when the agents had to bail out of New Haven in response to the dire warnings coming in on Superstorm Sandy.
That started the clock running on the additional five-year-plus wait for a comprehensive agreement covering both storms.
Moser said they originally were supposed to start the restoration work in April 2016, but they then realized that a major sanitary sewer line, carrying raw sewage, runs along Long Wharf Drive.
The Water Pollution Control Authority had to get involved with the changes in the work going back to FEMA for approval.
“We have been lucky we haven’t had any more Sandys,” Moser said of the various delays since 2012.
Moser said the FEMA funds can only cover the restoration work and no additional amenities. He said Hall’s work looking at sustainability, future flooding and ways to really enhance the area environmentally goes to the bigger picture.
Another study, in terms of the 400-acre area at and around Long Wharf in general, is under way. That comprehensive $400,000 look at the businesses, topography and potential growth, is being funded by the state’s Office of Policy and Management.
An initial community meeting was held earlier this month by the consultant hired for that review, Perkins/Eastman . The next session will be in March with a completion date set for the end of 2018.
Zinn said while everyone thinks of the water rising through climate change, it also impacts the frequency and intensity of storms.
“A 100-year design storm now, in 2050, may be a 25-year design storm,” if the frequency of dangerous storms increases, Zinn said.
Not only did the city have to think about restoring what it had, “but also plan for the park, the road and the entire Long Wharf district to be resilient in the future,” he said.
Bombero said contractors are also restoring sections of the walking path that had been washed away along the shore.
“It is part of a layered approach. Whenever you look at resiliency, there are two sides. One is the actual flood waters, protecting against that, and keeping the water out. But you also want to make sure that when the water comes up, it doesn’t take away your shoreline,” Zinn said.
He said Long Wharf Drive also has a lot of utilities under it. The city found that erosion from Irene and Sandy got to within 10 to 15 feet of some of those utilities.
“Nature does a very good job of protecting shorelines with intertidal marshes and other systems. We want to create infrastructure that works not only that one day when you have a hurricane, but also works for the community the other 999 days out of a 1,000,” Zinn said.
He said using natural systems not only help absorb water, they create habitat and add more wildlife diversity.
“Let’s face it. The reason New Haven was established here is because there was such a nice natural harbor. Connecting us not only to the natural element, but to our past, I think is important,” Zinn said.
Other work covered by the FEMA funds included restoration of the flagpole and a lighting upgrade at the Vietnam Memorial, Bombero said.
Bombero said across the harbor, her department is looking forward to working on the shoreline at the East Shore Park to increase access to that area. Zinn said they are going into final design on it, which helps when the city looks for funders.
He said it is still pretty fluid at this point and not yet ready for the public.
The aim would be to protect against erosion and create habitat, while reconnecting that park to the water.
Zinn said they are looking to create a “much gentler slope” to the water from the park, which now has three steep paths through the phragmites. They also envision a walking path above the living shoreline area and one that would go through it.
In certain spots you can now see some intertidal wetlands that have been established there. Zinn said his favorite is one that grew up behind an eroded timber bulkhead. “It doesn’t take much,” he said for a marsh to get started.
“If you put rocks along the water, create an intertidal marsh behind it, grade the land back behind that, put in some native marsh and dune plantings, it creates resilience,” the engineer said. “This dissipates the wave energy, which is what really erodes and destroys shorelines.”