“I should have seen the peak of my house,” recalled Andy Weinstein. “It wasn’t there.”
On August 28, 2011, Weinstein stood next to his car on Philip Street in East Haven. The roads sloped down toward the coast. The formerly well-defined border of sand and sea walls had been erased. Hurricane Irene had made her way up the Atlantic shoreline, pummeling the coast and everything on it. Somewhere among the soup of seawater and debris sat the remains of Weinstein’s house. He set out on foot to find it.
Weinstein’s house was built nearly a century ago, when the beach stretched for fifty or a hundred feet behind the homes, a comfortable buffer. By the time Weinstein started renting the property in 2001, the beach had shrunk drastically. At low tide, there might be twenty feet between water and land. At the highest of high tides—twice a month, under the new or full moon—the water rolled up the beach and ran underneath his house which was elevated off the beach a few feet. When he stepped out of his house on the road-facing side, the water might cover his toes. Weinstein’s beach house was its own island in the Long Island Sound.
Even so, the house remained dry. Weinstein never had water inside the house, and he saw little reason to worry about the hurricane. But just in case, the Friday before the storm, he took the day off from his job at the auto shop he owns to prepare his house. He packed up two days’ worth of clothes, boarded up windows and doors, and moved porch furniture inside. He drove about thirty minutes with his wife and daughter to their primary residence in Woodbridge, expecting to return to East Haven on Sunday afternoon.
Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time she barreled through Cosey Beach on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, Weinstein got a call from his sister-in-law. She had heard that some houses on the beach were badly damaged, but she didn’t have any details. Weinstein drove down to investigate, expecting to find flooded roads, maybe some water damage.
A mile from his house, he saw water on the road. He parked the car and continued on foot. By the time he made it to Cosey Beach Avenue, which runs parallel to the shoreline, he was waist-deep.
Weinstein found his house—half of it, at least. Wet wooden beams lay crisscrossed in a pile of rubble ten feet high, with electrical wires looped over a dirty volleyball and hubcap. The other half was never found, swept into the Sound by the hurricane.
Before returning home to break the news to his family, Weinstein walked to the house two doors down. His cousin, Sara-Ann Auerbach, who owns a home on Cosey Beach Avenue with her husband Hillel, had asked him to retrieve her jewelry and other valuables. She was afraid the water would wash them away. Faced with another pile of rubble, Weinstein took out his cell phone and called her.
“There is no house,” he said.
“What do you mean, there is no house?”
“There is no house.”
In 2011, Hurricane Irene swept away much of Cosey Beach. It might have seemed fast to the inhabitants, but the damage had been centuries in the making. Waterfront development destroyed natural dune systems that held the sand in place, hastening erosion of the beach. Beachfront homes are visibly losing their beachfront, their last line of defense against severe storms. Yet few residents are leaving Cosey Beach. Sara-Ann and Hillel Auerbach rebuilt their home atop thirteen-foot concrete pillars, but Weinstein and his family moved to Woodbridge for good. Some residents of Cosey Beach Avenue have worked to bring the sand back, but scientists caution that this only responds to a symptom, not the cause. The only permanent solution, they say, is to relocate.
Curt Johnson has seen erosion sweep away dozens of feet of beach sand during his lifetime. The Executive Director of Save the Sound, a program run by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, he grew up less than half a mile from Cosey Beach Avenue. Houses that once sat at a comfortable distance from the shoreline now butt up against the water.
“At some point in the not-so-distant future, [the beach] is going to move out from under them entirely,” Johnson said. Tanned and relaxed, he looks like he might have spent idyllic childhood summers on the beach, but now his hair has turned gray and his mouth curves down at the corners; it looks like he’s frowning even when he smiles. “And they’re going to have waves crashing around them every day. It’s horrible.”
Irene and Sandy killed nearly two hundred people and caused about $66 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center. Tens of millions of dollars in federal funding is flowing into coastal areas like New Jersey to restore their beaches to pre-Sandy conditions. And all around the world, scientists and laypeople are on the lookout for more powerful storms, which many believe to be linked to climate change. Whatever is causing these storms, one thing is clear: the storms are putting lives and livelihoods in danger.
Beaches can protect residents from this danger. During Irene and Sandy, the houses with the least sand between them and the water were the most likely to be destroyed, according to James Tait, an associate professor of science education and environmental studies at Southern Connecticut State University. “Each wave is like a packet of energy,” he said. “That energy can do work. And that work can either be moving sand around or moving houses around.”
During the peak of the storm, Tait drove out to East Haven to see the waves in action. He parked near a retirement community about seven hundred feet from the beach, and at an elevation of about twenty feet higher than Cosey Beach Avenue. The storm arrived during high tide, which meant that the storm surge—the rush of ocean water brought on by a hurricane—flowed on top of an already-higher sea. In one of the photographs Tait took the morning of Irene, surf sprays around one residence, its neighbor house collapsed into the sea.
“When you go down there, [you think], ‘how could people possibly be so stupid to build their houses right now at the high tide mark?’” Johnson said. The answer: when many of the homes were built, over a hundred years ago, there was at least fifty feet of beach separating them from the water. The years of beach erosion have caused the distance between shoreline and houses to shrink, in some cases, to zero.
The amount of sand on a beach is determined by the type of waves that break there. When waves crash down, they loosen sand on the beach and suspend it in the water. If the waves strike rapidly, none of the suspended sand has time to settle down; instead it washes out into the Long Island Sound. Winter storms frequently bring these rapid waves to Cosey Beach.
If the waves strike less rapidly, sand carried from the ocean bed by the wave can settle on the beach before the next wave arrives. In this case, the beach grows. But less rapid waves powerful enough to deposit sand don’t reach Cosey Beach. Such waves originate from faraway storms and are blocked by the Long Island Sound. And there isn’t enough water between Connecticut and Long Island for the wind to form restorative waves. So the sand never comes back.
The beach shrinkage is compounded by the presence of humans—specifically, by the homes, hotels, and restaurants they build. According to Johnson, there used to be a line of dunes on the beach—piles of sand three to five feet high. Beach grass grew on top of the dunes and sent roots down deep, holding the sand in place. But when people started building on the beach in the late 1800s, they knocked down the dunes, and the beach grass had nowhere to grow. Now, the beach is not only flat, but also rapidly shrinking.
In 1891, seven cottages dotted the shoreline. Seven years later, the New Haven Street Railway Company ran a trolley line from downtown to the beach. The ride cost a nickel and took about forty-five minutes. Hundreds flocked to the beach, building summer cottages and patronizing restaurants and hotels. A boardwalk stretched across Cosey Beach Avenue; there were pool halls and old-fashioned ice cream stands. Women relaxed on the beach in long white dresses, their husbands standing nearby in black suits and flat straw hats.
Anne Hines’s grandfather purchased a squat cottage about a quarter-mile from the beach in 1910. Five years later, he outfitted it with a cellar, a second story, heating, and electricity. Hines was born in 1938, and she has lived in the same house ever since.
As a child, she spent most of her summers there. She was on the beach by 8:30 every morning, half an hour before swimming lessons began. Anyone who forgot a swimming suit could rent one for a quarter, and boat rentals cost a dollar a day. Hines and her friends passed the day playing card games, volleyball, or tennis, and working on their tans. “It was the greatest place in the world to be,” Hines told me.
In the evening, they gathered at the firehouse, a few blocks landward of the beach, to watch the Branford Manor Drum Corps. Decked out in beige slacks, white shirts, and red jackets with gold buttons, the Corps marched up and down the street, playing their instruments. Hines and her friends marched right behind them.
“We just passed the time away together,” Hines said. “And that’s what it was all about.”
The golden age of Cosey Beach came to a close after the Second World War. Development in the second half of the twentieth century brought a new, retirement-age crowd to the area. Joseph Vegliante, who built about three-dozen houses in East Haven at the time, credits the boom to the low interest rates of the seventies.
Some long-time residents remain, but they agree with Johnson and Tait that the beach has been shrinking over the past century. The sand that used to be on the beach is not, however, gone—it’s just sitting out there in the Long Island Sound. And that means that people can bring it back. With the right technology and enough money, they can pull sand up from the bottom of the Sound and move it back onto the beach. Beach erosion plagues coastal towns around the United States, and people have been replenishing beaches up and down the Atlantic coastline. The Army Corps of Engineers carries out the work, and any nonfederal government body—a city, a state, or a special tax district, for example—can apply to receive this service.
Over fifty years ago, the Army Corps replenished the beach of West Silver Sands, which lies directly to the west of Cosey Beach Avenue. West Silver Sands resident Donald DiPalma said that his house sustained little damage in Irene and Sandy, for which he credits the Army Corps.
But DiPalma has noticed that the beach is smaller than it used to be, even after replenishment. More than half the sand added in 1956 has already eroded. DiPalma is meeting with officials from Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to secure permits for another replenishment project. They need the permits before they can apply to the Army Corps. DiPalma doesn’t expect anything to happen for a few months.
Irene inspired Cosey Beach residents to take action. State Senator Len Fasano held a meeting in September 2012, about a year and a month after the storm, to inform residents about their options for keeping their shoreline homes safe. One option was to apply to the Army Corps for beach replenishment.
At that meeting, Virginia Cellura, a full-time resident of Cosey Beach Avenue, volunteered to coordinate community efforts to replenish the beach. She assembled a team to gather information about what would be required to complete the replenishment and to distribute that information to residents. Hillel Auerbach is a New Haven lawyer, and he volunteered for the project.
In order to petition the Army Corps, the residents needed to apply as a tax district, rather than a group of individuals. Residents planned to fund the project with a tax to be levied upon the district, but they didn’t know exactly how much it would cost. Rough estimates from the Army Corps ranged from five to ten thousand dollars per house, said Steven Ruotolo, who rents property on Cosey Beach Avenue. But, mired by miscommunication and misinformation, the project fell apart after a few meetings. The group has not yet been able to form a district, much less petition the Army Corps. Cellura has since handed off the reins to another Cosey Beach resident, who will soon be re-launching the effort to petition the town for the creation of the district.
But even if the residents can get the Army Corps to restore some of the sand, it won’t remain on the beach for long. Dumping sand on top of a beach might make the beach larger, but it’s a temporary solution—it’s only a matter of time before the water sweeps it back out to sea. It’s like building a sand castle. You pack sand into buckets and then overturn them, forming turrets. You form a wall around your structure, patting it all down to make it last. But all you did was put something in the way of the water. Eventually, the water will wash the sand away.
“It’s sort of a Sisyphean task,” Tait laughed.
This has happened to beach replenishment projects in other parts of the country. The Army Corps has replenished Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, twelve times from 1939 to 1986. The sand never stuck around for more than four years.
Even so, Tait thinks that beach replenishment is the best solution for the residents of Cosey Beach Avenue. Moving the sand from the Sound to the shore could protect more homes, even if it’s just for now. Beyond that, Tait thinks that the only long-term fix is moving away. Many residents are trying; at the end of November, at least eight houses along Cosey Beach Avenue sported “For Sale” signs. Weinstein has been trying to sell his property for the past two years, but hasn’t received a single offer. Residents say that they haven’t seen anyone new in the neighborhood in years.
Some, like Weinstein, could retreat to other homes away from the beach. But others have nowhere else to go, and policymakers are at a loss for how to help them. In late January, a Connecticut state agency determined that homeowners who want the government to buy their homes would get no money from a recent grant from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The committee decided that all FEMA funds would go to infrastructure projects instead. In a January 31 letter, however, Governor Malloy directed the committee to reconvene and reconsider their allocation of funds.
Local legislators presume that state money will likewise be unavailable. James Albis, East Haven’s state representative, said he isn’t aware of any conversations about state-funded buyback programs for coastal properties in dangerous areas, but he is concerned with the state’s ability to fund such a program. And in Connecticut, municipalities have jurisdiction over zoning—cities can decide who can build what where. Towns like East Haven have an incentive to promote development, even in potentially dangerous areas, Albis said, because more development means more property taxes. He knows that people shouldn’t build homes in hazardous places, and he has had conversations privately at the state level to try to change zoning laws. “It’s an uphill battle,” Albis told me.
Meanwhile, at the town level, East Haven has its own battles. It wants to help people who lost property during the storm, but also recognizes the need to adapt to a changing environment. For now, the scales are tipping toward short-term assistance. “We’ve done our best to get people back to normalcy as quickly as possible,” said Frank Biancur Jr., East Haven’s director of planning and zoning. His board has approved all permits to rebuild and elevate homes on Cosey Beach Avenue, but he can do little more. “We can’t force people to come in and rebuild,” he said.
Higher-level government agencies have different priorities. Dan Esty, who was the commissioner of DEEP during both hurricanes, put it bluntly: “A number of people are either going to have to move their houses back from the shoreline, lift them up on support structures, or otherwise change the placement of their homes.” Instead of returning people to normal—what their lives were like before Irene and Sandy—Esty urges them to look toward a new normal.
Some have come to that decision themselves. At first, Weinstein thought he was going to rebuild his house. He applied for permission to rebuild along with the Auerbachs, and both families got zoning approval and commissioned construction plans. A few months after the storm, Weinstein testified at an insurance hearing. His homeowners insurance was denying him money to pay for damages they claimed were caused by water, which was not covered, as opposed to wind, which would be.
At the hearing, Weinstein met Albis. Impressed by Weinstein’s insight and passion, Albis invited Weinstein to join the Shoreline Preservation Task Force, a committee chaired by Albis about how to protect coastal communities. Composed of legislators and other citizens, the committee produced a report last year with recommendations to local, state, and federal agencies on how to reduce damage in future storms.
The more Weinstein learned about erosion and rising sea levels, the more he realized that rebuilding his house on the beach was a bad idea. He didn’t want to be saddled with beachfront property that would keep disappearing before his eyes. “I’ve probably got another twenty years,” Weinstein said. “That’s twenty more years of beach erosion.” That means twenty more years of worrying about the security of his house and twenty more years of paying to raise it, move it back, or replenish the beach.
The tipping point was when he looked at maps created by the Nature Conservancy, which show what the coastline looks like after hurricanes of varying magnitudes. A category 2 hurricane that would arrive in 2020 will likely put Cosey Beach Avenue, and some roads behind it, underwater.
Others hope it is possible for humans to overcome these threats. Sara-Ann, with her thirteen-foot-high concrete pillars, says she hopes her grandchildren will have a beach to play on. Hines is even less worried, and finds the power of the beach compelling still: “Whatever is bothering you has gone out on the waves and you are at peace.”
Tait identified something encouraging about the attention to the situation: residents are being forced to realize that they’re in a fight with nature. What Tait doesn’t say is what comes next: many residents remain in denial about the cold truth that they’re on the losing side. Some can’t leave Cosey Beach Avenue because they can’t sell their property, others are financially secure enough to weather any storm, and some stay adrift with nostalgia, with a sense of home even as the sand under them is swept away.