After a flood in 1936 caused widespread devastation from Maine to Maryland, federal officials drafted a plan to prevent a similar disaster. But the effort languished - until the flood of '55 came along.
The devastating deluge that claimed 87 lives and caused up to $400 million in damage spurred officials into action, and a chain of dams and reservoirs was built in an effort to prevent such tragedy from happening again.
So far, the barriers and water reserves along New England's major rivers have saved the state millions of dollars in potential damage by controlling the ebb and flow of water during heavy rains. The Army Corps of Engineers uses satellites to monitor the flow of water, and adjustments are made whenever needed to prevent flooding.
But experts also note that Mother Nature has not put the state to the same test she did 50 years ago.
"Since 1955 we have not had anything close to the magnitude of Hurricanes Connie and Diane," said Paul Marinelli, chief of the Reservoir Regulation Team for the Corps' New England District. "What happened in 1955 was a rare event."
"No dam, even today, is going to be able to channel 18 inches of water in 24 hours," he said, referring to the ferocious rainfall that fell when the state was hit with major back-to-back storms. "But what we do have today is a series of dams that will hold back a lot of the water that in 1955 went straight into towns."
The flood swept away homes and lives. It also jarred the complacent attitudes toward flood control, not just in Connecticut but in all of New England. Within months, states banded together to demand a review of all flood control plans for all rivers in the Northeast.
The federal government complied, appropriating funds and instructing the Corps to assess what needed to be done along the Naugatuck, Farmington and Mad rivers to protect residents and their towns.
In a little more than a decade, the Corps built a series of major dams in Connecticut, including the Thomaston Dam in 1960, the Northfield Brook Dam in 1965 and the Colebrook Dam in 1969. At the same time, the federal conservation service was contracted to build 26 other dams around the state, including the Westside Dam in Norfolk, Talcott Reservoir in West Hartford and Cold Spring Reservoir in Bloomfield.
The dams built by the Corps cost $70 million to build, but have saved the state an estimated $475 million in potential flood damage, Marinelli said.
The Corps monitors its dams from its New England District headquarters in Concord, Mass., where data are collected from dam sites throughout New England through satellite telemetry. The dams themselves are also regularly checked.
"We monitor water flow, rainfall, and river depth and advise dam tenders at each location about when to hold back water in the reservoirs as needed," Marinelli said. Sometimes, dams as far north as Vermont are controlled to minimize flow in southern New England.
"It's pretty simple technology," said Fred L. Ogden, associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut. "It gives you a way to divert the water - or hold it back - and then control its flow."
"A series of dams is the time-honored way to control water flow," he said. "And because there are more dams today along the major rivers and waterways here the water flow can be better controlled."
Meteorologists also now have an array of high-tech tools to help them track major storms and forecast flooding. Land-use regulations are also stricter.
"We would have more warning because of instruments like Doppler radar, especially for an intense storm," Ogden said. "Communication is faster and more widespread now. People would know sooner what was coming. There is a better transportation system and people could evacuate faster."
"And today," he added, "we have controls that limit how close to a waterway someone can build a house or a business."
Still, some warn that while flooding can be better controlled - the dangers can't be eliminated.
"Now we can forecast the rain better, but we still can't stop it," said Mel Goldstein, a meteorologist and director emeritus of the Weather Center at Western Connecticut State University. "Mother Nature is still bigger than all the technology, or dams or reservoirs we can create."
Marinelli said there are some, including the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass., who think the area is long overdue for a storm that rivals that of 1955. "The stage is set, we are getting more storm activity in the Atlantic and the storms seem to be a little more intense," he said.
But Goldstein said that while there may be more that could be done to try to ward off the effects of such a storm, the cost of planning for such a rare event has to be balanced with fiscal and other realities.
"I suppose you could carry the flood measures to even greater heights, but that is not practical," Goldstein said. "It is not likely we will see a situation like 1955 again because something like that doesn't come along that often."
Now, Dams And Reservoirs, Doppler And Satellites
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