Army Corps: Levees in Hartford area aging and in need of repair

Environment

In 1936, Hartford was under water. The inside the Colt Firearm factory on Asylum Street was submerged, 6-feet deep. It resulted in $6.5 million in damages.

“It was the ’36 flood that really showed how bad it could get,” Kendall Wiggin, the State Librarian said, “I think people began to realize they had to do something about it.”

The Army Corps of Engineers constructed these levees over 70 years ago after historic floods. The idea to is protect the communities of Hartford and East Hartford. 

Over 70 years later, the threat of catastrophic flooding still looms in Connecticut’s capital area.

The Army Corps has identified serious deficiencies that need fixes in order for the aging systems to hold up.

It’s the largest, most complex flood control system in New England. Seven miles of levees, dams, water pump stations and five miles of tunnels in Hartford. Four miles of levees along the Connecticut and Hockanum Rivers in East Hartford.

Congressman John Larson said, “I’ve asked them for the last 20 years. We need to fix these rivers and they say, ‘well if you have a flood or there was a collapse, we’d be there immediately’.”

Levee failure would mean loss of life and property, and would jeopardize the I-84, I-91 interchange and the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant.

In a 2018 letter to the Army Corps, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said, “Failure of the system would be an environmental and civic catastrophe for the entire central Connecticut region.”

A levee breach today would flood 25 percent of Hartford’s land area. This would inundate approximately 3,000 acres of highly developed residential, commercial, and industrial areas and destroy 20 percent of the city’s grand list.

Larson said, “What caused the great collapse in New Orleans was something called sand piping. We have the same thing at the Bulkeley Bridge on both sides. The results of that would be catastrophic for both sides of the river.”

Related: Homes flood as Missouri River overtops, breaches levees

Hartford’s flood management system, which includes the levees protects 20 percent of its taxable property.

In East Hartford, levees protect 800 structures and 6,000 people.

Larson lives a half-mile from the river. Last year, he helped pass a bill that would fund Army Corps studies to determine if the levees are beyond their design life. But congress has not appropriated the funds, so the studies haven’t begun.

Larson said, “The money has to come from the federal government. Neither of these communities or the state of Connecticut is in the position.”

The Army Corps says Hartford has made significant progress in correcting deficiencies over the past 4 years, upgrading their unacceptable rating.

East Hartford has put over $21 million into their system since 2006 and was not at any time rated unacceptable.

Michael Looney, Deputy Director, Hartford Department of Public Works said, “It’s really hard to determine how big the threat is. I mean every day we’re seeing new environmental conditions that sort of deviate from what we’ve seen in the past.”

The city has had to rely on state help for repairs.

Looney said, “Over the last several years I think we’ve done about $7.5 million worth of improvements in a number of areas.”

Hartford is in the process of high-priority fixes identified by the Army Corps, including projects to help keep water from seeping through the levees. But Larson’s concerned the connecticut could rise again if congress doesn’t act soon.

“Otherwise we’ll be facing a catastrophic event that will cost way more than any attempt to rectify the situation,” said Larson.

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