A disaster often implies a finite point in time. But not all disasters have as finite an end as they do a beginning. Years later, aftershocks still unsettle affected communities.
Two of New Haven’s recent ‘disasters’ — hurricanes Sandy and Irene — are in the past for most residents and Yalies, but not for chef Prasad Chirnomula. In his case, the two events have persisted and now reemerged.
Thali and Thali Too — two New Haven restaurants owned by Chirnomula’s Five Star Restaurant Group — closed on Sept. 30 and Oct. 29, respectively, to the dismay of Elm City foodies. The establishments served the community over the past decade, even expanding beyond their brick-and-mortar stores by offering to-go lunches in Yale eateries like the Kline Biology Tower Cafe. Their closing left a hole in New Haven’s food scene, with little explanation.
The reason is, in fact, a disaster. While Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria inundated news feeds across campus and led to student-led efforts like the Hearts for Houston bake sale, it was the lasting effects of Sandy and Irene that prompted Chirnomula to close his restaurants. Though more than five years had passed since the storms struck, the hurricanes’ damage to some of Chirnomula’s properties outside New Haven forced him to borrow money from banks — a financial strain that prompted the closings.
Perhaps no one knows the damaging effects of disaster better than Rick Fontana, deputy director of the New Haven Emergency Operations Center. I met him at the center, New Haven’s headquarters for combating flooding, storms and disasters. Four long rows of desks, topped with computers and phones and marked with placards indicating the desks’ intended occupants — fire chief, parks director, Yale Police Department, mayor — fill the room. At the front of the room is a large screen emblazoned with the center’s seal, and above that, a line of TVs displaying security camera feeds. The center is situated in the basement of the Hall of Records building, which is, ironically, below sea level.
“This place was built as a fallout shelter,” Fontana said. Constructed in 1981, the shelter is equipped with an air filtration system, concrete walls and 16,000 gallons of stored potable water. These protections are from a bygone era: the Cold War, when New Haven’s most pressing concern was an atomic bomb falling from a clear blue sky.
As Fontana explained, today’s picture of crisis is cloudier, windier and wetter than that image. Storms are now more frequent and severe, and sea level rise is worsening flooding. These two risks share the same root cause: climate change.
“Here we overplan for the worst,” Fontana said, “because we can always scale back.”
The center’s resilience and mitigation plans fill a thick binder beside the mayor’s desk. And next to the large screen at the front rests a selection of crisis maps: flood levels, evacuation areas, hurricane inundation zones. Maps for the latter category are usually redrawn every 5 years, but, after Hurricane Sandy, the maps drawn that same year had to be discarded and reassessed.
“During Sandy, we saw water in places it’s never been before,” Fontana said. “But the frequency of flooding has been increasing every single year, and, in ten to twenty years, we’ll see more water in places it’s never been.”
The major tasks of emergency operations are managing emergencies through city departments, such police, fire and emergency medical services, as well as contacting New Haven residents when disaster strikes. Using its phone system, the center can selectively notify citizens of any kind of emergency with a phone call or text message in under three minutes. It’s a system so advanced, Fontana said, that it helped the city earn a Class 7 rating from Federal Emergency Management Agency’s community rating system program — the highest level of recognition for coastal disaster resilience. The designation saves New Haven homeowners 15 percent on flood insurance. Out of 65 participating New England communities, only seven have received Class 7 distinction.
To contact the homeless, who cannot receive traditional notifications, the center works in tandem with New Haven police, visiting shelters and homeless areas to get the word out, Fontana said. Fontana added that he is proud of New Haven’s disaster alert and mitigation strategies but that the risk of flooding will continue to grow more severe over time.
After East Shore Alder Salvatore DeCola watched his ward and other parts of the city succumb to storm damage during Sandy, he was spurred to act.
“Sandy showed us where our weakness were,” DeCola said. “No one did anything wrong — it was a whole new issue for the entire East Coast.”
Less than one month after the storm, DeCola and then–East Rock Alder Justin Elicker introduced a bill that would mandate improved planning from the city in preparation for climate change. DeCola said climate change will bring more severe storms to New Haven and that the city and its residents need to be prepared. He cited new flood barriers and water-draining bioswales throughout the city as two examples of post-Sandy improvements.
“The city is doing the best it can with the funds we have, which are limited,” DeCola said. “With climate change, it’s like rolling the dice. … You never fully know what will happen. We just have to be proactive.”
Though the effects of climate change are a more recent concern, the city has always been at risk for natural disasters, said Judith Schiff, Yale’s chief research archivist. Schiff said the most famous of these was the hurricane of 1938 — a Category 3 storm when it made landfall just east of New Haven. It remains the strongest and deadliest storm in Connecticut’s history, having left 5,000 buildings destroyed and 600 dead in New England. The storm felled most of the Elm City’s elm trees, which were already weakened by Dutch elm disease. Overall, however, New Haven has been largely spared from natural disasters, Schiff said.
As to what to expect in the future, the answer is of course unclear. “What once flooded periodically now floods often, and sea levels will continue to rise,” Fontana said. But he didn’t need to make that point hit home for me — it hit home in 2012.
I come from a coastal town on the New Jersey Shore, and, before Hurricane Sandy, we never thought disaster could affect us. But as the flood waters rose, so too did a realization that there had arrived here. The denial mentality is all too common in places where disasters don’t strike — until, of course, they do.
In a conference room at City Hall, the Downtown Wooster Square Community Management Team holds its monthly meeting. On Oct. 17, Executive Board Chair Caroline Smith ’14 called the room of citizens, neighbors and friends to order with introductions: “Tell us your name and the New Haven street you live on.” It’s a personal touch that helps create a welcoming atmosphere.
“The roots of the organization trace back to broad citywide community-policing efforts, but now our role has expanded,” Smith said. “We are kind of a neighborhood association that focuses on quality of life, safety and other community issues.”
But recently, in addition to its typical neighborhood discussion, climate change has been on the community management team’s agenda. In July, Susmitha Attota from the City Plan Department spoke to Downtown and Wooster Square residents about the risks of climate change in New Haven. With rising seas and a growing frequency of storms, Attota said a primary risk for the city is flooding in low-lying areas, such as East Shore and Long Wharf.
“We wanted to raise awareness on conservation and safety,” Attota added. “There is a huge education campaign letting people know what to do when there is an impending flood or disaster.”
In at-risk neighborhoods, flooding can be predictable and its devastation prevented, but Attota said that any neighborhood can be inundated when systems fail.
“We coordinate with departments and talk to other municipalities to coordinate how best to deal with this issue,” Attota said. “But this isn’t something you do once and you’re done with. In order to maintain good standing, one needs to keep doing the work that is necessary.”
In light of the flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, Attota said disaster is always unexpected but that strong preparation is key to preventing destruction.
“Houston never imagined it would get so inundated with rainfall,” Attota said. “Everyone in the country has a risk — it’s just the nature of climate change.”
When I spoke with community management team members after the group’s October meeting, most expressed fears about climate change and its effects on New Haven. Like Attota, York Street resident Lydia Bornick understands New Haven’s vulnerability to sea level rise as a coastal city, and she is worried.
“New Haven and the shoreline communities sit on a coastline that is easily affected by rising tides and increased water temperatures. … We already know we sit in a very precarious situation,” Bornick said. “I am concerned about climate change.”
Attendee Emly McDiarmid said that, as a grandmother, she worries about climate change. Yet, despite her concern, McDiarmid said that she remains hopeful, trusting in the “talent and knowledge” of the New Haven community to confront the threat head-on.
One promising example of that talent and knowledge is professor Alexander Felson’s team at the School of Forestry and Environmental Science. Felson works with municipal and state governments to develop efficient and effective climate change mitigation plans. With a focus on sea level rise, the group works to create innovative strategies to reduce risks and share these findings with homeowners.
“Our work is most effective by empowering local governments and decision-makers and then having the conversations with private citizens in public forums to educate them and chip away at any assumptions against climate change,” Felson said. “We’re in this situation where we have to make choices today based on assumptions, and I think that’s a hard thing for everyone to do.”
In addition to public forums, Felson’s group educates citizens through real estate agencies and town planners, but getting his message across to every homeowner remains a challenge, especially when not all are civically minded, he added.
On an undergraduate level, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition looks to educate Yalies about what they can do to affect climate change. Media Chair Dani Schulman ’20 said the main issue on campus is not that students do not believe climate change or are unwilling to support preparation projects but that they fail to think about how their actions contribute to climate change. Schulman said that people are generally reluctant to act to prevent a slow-moving, impersonal threat.
“Most Yalies think climate change is real and abstractly care about it, but they’re not going to bother about it,” Schulman said. “People can know about climate change, but we are reluctant to blame ourselves for our role in the issue. … It’s really hard to make people change.”
While climate change may still appear abstract and distant, when Yalies walk between Ezra Stiles College and Broadway, they’ll see the vacant storefront of Thali Too. Most will keep walking, but some, maybe, will stop to think.