Assisting Coastal Communities with Beach Restoration Plans

coastal researchTwo Southern Connecticut State University faculty members and their students are analyzing the effect that Hurricane Sandy had on the coastlines of East Haven and West Haven in an effort to help those communities prepare for future storms.

James Tait, associate professor of science education and environmental studies, and Ezgi Akpinar Ferrand, assistant professor of geography, have been examining the beach erosion that occurred from the hurricane that hit the East Coast a year ago. The bulk of their efforts have been focused on East Haven, so far, though some analysis has taken place on the coastline of West Haven. They may look at other coastal communities in the future.

"East Haven was really the poster child of damage as a result of that storm," says Tait, who lives close to the beach area in that community.

He says the width of the beach area was the primary factor in determining how much damage a coastal community sustained. In areas with a wide beach, the damage was minimal, but in narrow beach areas, the effects were much more profound. In fact, the waters of Long Island sound extended 1,845 feet inland in the Silver Sands Road and Farview Road area of East Haven, according to Tait. And the beach area was cut in half in the vicinity of Caroline Avenue.

"It could have been even worse had the peak of the storm coincided with high tide," Akpinar Ferrand adds. "Instead, it occurred close to low tide."

SCSU has been mapping the flood zones to show the most affected areas. Tait says that because a wide beach is the best protection against property damage, he believes it would be fruitful for East Haven to restore its beach area. He said there are a few ways that this can be accomplished.

"Connecticut's beaches are naturally erosive, especially as compared with California," he says. He explained that in areas with fairer weather, the waves naturally return the beach sand that is lost. But in Connecticut, the return rate is very slow. In fact, he said some studies have shown up to a foot of beach area is lost, on average, per year.

Tait says a full report on the assessment and recommendations will be made to East Haven officials next fall.

Part of the report is likely to show how bad the damage would have been if the storm occurred in 2025 or 2035, assuming a gradual rise in the sea level of Long Island Sound projected by many climatologists. "We certainly believe that the damage would have been worse," he says.

In West Haven, an analysis is being conducted to determine where the beach sand has gone as a result of the hurricane. He hopes that information can help West Haven plan for its own beach revitalization, which would include the addition of beach sand in the areas that would have the greatest benefit to the city.

"These two projects have the potential to benefit the two communities, as well as give our students an opportunity to participate in real-world research," Akinpar Ferrand says.

Tait agrees.

"And the research could be used as a catalyst for changes that could lower flood insurance premiums in those areas," he says.

Catherine Cota, a student working on the projects, says it is a rewarding experience to see what can be done to preserve the existence of the beaches and prevent devastation from future storms. "I really enjoy being part of a project that can directly benefit the people of these communities and help tax dollars to be put to good use," Cota says. "After working on the beaches all summer, you really get a feel for how important the beaches are to this community."

Kaitlyn Stobierski, also a student engaged with the research, says the real-world experience has enabled her to apply the skills she has learned in the classroom. "And the work that we have been doing on the beaches will give people in the town a better understanding of what they are up against and what they can do to help out the beaches," she says.

Mark Paine Jr., assistant to the commissioner of public works in West Haven, thanked SCSU, noting that the city could not possibly have conducted the extensive research that is being conducted by the university.

"I'm grateful for the resources the Werth Center (for Coastal and Marine Studies) is providing the city, and as an SCSU graduate, I'm pleased to be a small part of an enriching and tremendously valuable field experience for the students," Paine says. "It's truly a win-win situation, and a perfect example of the type of collaboration our state and municipal entities would benefit by engaging in. It is my hope that this is the first of many such partnerships with SCSU."