Norwalk, Conn., Debates Building Project In Floodplain


The frequency of severe storms is focusing new scrutiny on whether to build in coastal, flood-prone areas. That's a question facing city leaders in Norwalk, Conn., a city on Long Island Sound. They're hoping to upgrade a public housing project using federal dollars.

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And let's talk about another kind of tragedy: natural disasters. Severe storms seem to becoming more frequently, and this is raising questions once again about the wisdom of building in coastal flood-prone areas. It's an issue for private builders and public officials, like city leaders in Norwalk, Connecticut. They want to upgrade and old housing project in a flood plain using federal dollars. From WSHU, Kaomi Goetz has that story.

KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: Norwalk, Connecticut is on the Long Island Sound, about an hour and a half's drive from New York City. A few hundred feet from the Norwalk Harbor sits the state's oldest public housing development, Washington Village. The tired brick buildings take up one city block.


PAULA SANCHEZ: Yeah, you can come in.

GOETZ: Fifty-five year old Paula Sanchez lives there. She said after Sandy hit, there was a lot of flooding.

SANCHEZ: I never saw something like that before. I think it was the end of the world.

GOETZ: Water flooded her elevated, first-floor apartment by three-and-a-half inches. But then, it regularly floods. Sometimes several feet of water blocks her from leaving the apartment. But Sandy was the worst.

SANCHEZ: I lost a lot of stuff, refrigerator stuff, washer, dryer.

GOETZ: Washington Village is in a hundred-year floodplain. Now there's a plan to raise the buildings and rebuild at a price of more than $100 million. A private developer in the city envisioned a mixed-income complex with lots of amenities. But there are critics.

GANGA DULEEP: I want Washington Village rebuilt, but not rebuilt in the floodplain.

GOETZ: Norwalk resident Ganga Duleep volunteers at a community garden at a park across the street. She's also studied coastal management. She says the plan is a bad idea.

DULEEP: You cannot stop nature. So if they rebuild in the floodplain, that would be very, very financially not viable in the years to come.

GOETZ: Yet the project is enthusiastically backed by many of the city's leaders. They say it will help revitalize a neighborhood that's riddled with crime and poverty, and no one is getting displaced. Bruce Kimmel is on the Norwalk Common Council. He knows climate change is having some effect.

BRUCE KIMMEL: I don't think that means that no one is going to rebuild or build in areas, that in the past, have been prone to flooding. What we're going to do is rebuild differently.

GOETZ: Like building structures and streets higher than the floodplain. But the Washington Village Project is relying on $30 million from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and critics don't like U.S. taxpayer dollars used to build in risky areas. In fact, Connecticut has a statute that bans using state money to build in floodplains. But in other ways, the federal government has assisted, if not encouraged building in floodplains.

Joseph MacDougald heads the Center for Energy and Environmental Law at the University of Connecticut. He says the federal government has been offering low-cost flood insurance for years.

JOSEPH MACDOUGALD: By using public funds to subsidize insurance, then under the federal flood insurance program, it created a system where government displaced the risk. It said, OK, we will step in and take the risk. The same thing is true of public funds, as they go into development.

GOETZ: Yet the subsidies may be waning. MacDougald says the low-cost insurance premiums are going up, and will soon be pegged to the value of the home. That may mean many coastal home owners - or even public housing authorities - may be priced out. As for Washington Village, if federal funds fall through, supporters hope the state will waive its ban and funnel disaster relief money to the project.

The developer says some public subsidy is needed. For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz.

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