In 1985, Hurricane Gloria made landfall in New Haven, flooding the city’s coastline. Only the residents of a nursing home that lost power and 12 stranded passers-through sought shelter through the city’s Office of Emergency Management.
But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Haven’s natural disaster and emergency response efforts have warranted a second look. Like New Orleans, New Haven is a low-lying port city whose sea-level coastal regions are heavily developed, both residentially and commercially. With more of the city above the flood plain — any area less than 11 feet above sea level — New Haven is less susceptible to flooding from the coast than was New Orleans, though internal rivers threaten to flood some New Haven residential neighborhoods.
“For a natural event, [New Haven] would not need to be fully evacuated,” Deputy Director of City Planning Mike Piscitelli said. “In New Orleans, the entire urban population was within a flood-prone area.”
New Haven Office of Emergency Management deputy director James Moore said New Orleans, unlike New Haven, had no higher land under city control to which to evacuate its residents.
“Topographically, we have relatively high ground under our control,” Moore said. “Any city building, primarily the schools, could be used as a shelter.”
Additionally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Orleans’s population of 460,000 in 2004 was almost four times that of New Haven, posing a much greater burden on evacuation efforts.
But New Haven’s topography presents a double threat of flooding, both along the coast and inland, in residential areas.
Flood inundation maps of New Haven, researched and analyzed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s, detail potential flooding caused by a Category 1, 2, 3 or 4 hurricane coinciding with high tide, Moore said. The worst-case scenario forecasts areas of flooding along the entirety of New Haven’s 18.9 square miles of coastline. At the same time, Moore said, the city is also vulnerable to river flooding in residential areas along the Quinnipiac River, West River and Morris Creek.
Moore said this two-fold possibility of flooding prevents the city from posting hurricane or flood evacuation routes common in other coastal regions.
“You have flooding from the inland to the coast and from the coast to the inland at the same time,” he said. “If you had posted evacuation routes, you’d be sending both sets of evacuees into another problem area.”
Geographically, however, New Haven is still better-off than its neighbors. While the surrounding areas of East Haven and Milford cope with residential flooding often, New Haven is sheltered from the worst of storms by the large, protected New Haven Harbor, the opening of which is angled against the North-South path of storms, Moore said.
Even so, hurricanes pose distinctive problems to New Haven when they are slow-moving.
“Flooding concerns come with a minor hurricane that essentially parks itself over the city and rains,” Moore said.
Moore said he and his team at the Office of Emergency Management are carefully tracking the slow-moving Hurricane Ophelia as it makes its way up the east coast today. Forecasts early yesterday morning from the National Weather Service predicted Ophelia could just pass by the Connecticut area around 2 a.m. Saturday morning.
But should the storm system move slightly westward and hit the New Haven area, its rainfall would coincide with high-tide in the harbor, potentially creating serious flooding and storm surges along the coast. During an interview with the News yesterday, Moore received an alert from the National Weather Service warning of flash floods Saturday in the New Haven area from Ophelia.
New Haven has been preparing for a range of natural disasters. This year, the city received a $22,500 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant under the agency’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation program. The nationwide program provides funding for local governments to research and implement ways of lessening the potential impact of natural disasters.
The Board of Alderman approved New Haven’s Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan this week and is submitting it next week to FEMA for review, Piscitelli said.
“[The plan is] a compilation, analysis and assessment of the natural risks to New Haven and the very specific measures that the city should take to reduce damage to property and loss of life in the event of a natural disaster,” he said.
The disaster plan focuses only on natural events, including hurricanes, winter storms, flooding, tornadoes and, to a lesser extent, earthquakes.
“Our plan culminates with a series of priorities and recommendations to repair infrastructure and to bring critical resources into a state of good repair, so that if we were faced with a significant natural risk, the city has done everything it can to reduce a loss of life,” Piscitelli said.
He said potential hazards identified in the plan include rising water levels along the coastal regions of New Haven, day-to-day beach erosion at East Shore Park and the flood plain areas of Front Street Park, Criscollo Park, Long Wharf and Morris Creek.
Flood risks to Yale specifically are almost non-existent, according to the flood inundation maps, which show that flooding from even the worst-case Category 4 hurricane scenario would not reach the New Haven Green, which is 25 feet above sea level. Even so, Moore said, the University is in a unique position as an extremely mobile and comparatively affluent community.
“If something bad is going to happen, [students] can all disappear very quickly,” Moore said.
However, he notes that the mayor and the city remain responsible for the safety of Yale’s employees and students.
“You vote here, you live here, you spend your money here,” he said. “Yale’s certainly not a vacuum in our plans.”
In the event of evacuations in New Haven, the Office of Emergency Management has plans to use certain campus buildings as shelters.