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The Great Flood

Photograph by: Kristen Riolo

(page 1 of 3)

While others in Darien keep watching the skies, Eric Gidley checks the parking lot.

Gidley, assistant manager at Leary’s Discount Wines & Liquors on Heights Road, knows that when rainwater runoff begins to rise above the curb outside his store, it’s time to batten down the hatches and get the pricier wine to higher shelves. Of all the parts of town prone to flash flooding, the commercial district of Heights Road has been an epicenter as far back as 1955. A year ago came the topper, a raging grimy torrent on October 11, cresting above four feet, that poured through the front door, destroyed most of the store’s stock and trapped Gidley and others inside. “We didn’t even have time to move the cars,” he says. “We had to call 911 to get us out of here.”

In the last few years, and particularly in 2007, floodwaters have been a major problem throughout Darien. Over on Kelsey Street, Laura and Frank Giobbi have a ritual whenever a heavy rainfall begins: Lay a double wall of sandbags around the front door; stretch tarpaulin across the sandbags; then watch and hope the three-foot-high berm they built in their yard will be enough to keep rising waters away.

“I can’t even tell you the level of anxiety we have,” Laura says. “We were forced out of our home for two weeks’ total last year. We have neighbors who were totally devastated, and out of their homes for months.”

Mark McEwan, volunteer chief of the Noroton Heights Fire Department, talks of his own early-warning sign, a call from an older woman on Holly Lane whenever floodwaters get too high for her and her husband’s comfort.

“That’s how we know we have another situation on our hands,” he says.

“I do blame the town,” Leary’s owner Kevin Leary states flatly. “They’ve known about the problem since the 1970s, and they’ve done nothing about it.”

He stops a moment, brow knotted. Outside, a sign advertises Leary’s as “still the friendliest store around,” but at the moment the mood in here is anything but.

“No, actually, they did do something about it,” he continues. “You know what they did? Back in the 1970s, they put a four-inch sewage pipe inside the foot-wide drainage pipe that’s supposed to direct water away from here, so there’s that much less room for the water to flow through.”

For Leary, removing that long-shut-down sewage pipe would be a correct first step. Others see the retention pond as the more immediate need. Advocates for the pond include Evonne Klein, Darien’s first selectwoman, and Robert Steeger Jr., director of the town’s Department of Public Works.

If it were as easy a matter as removing an old sewage pipe, Steeger insists, it would have happened long ago. The problem, he says, is that the drainage pipe, obstructed or not, isn’t enough to handle the load. A wider drainage system is needed. As development increased, the town’s ability to absorb rainwater weakened. He likens the topography of the area around Baker Field, which includes Heights Road, to a basin.

“What seems to impact the Heights Road area is heavy rainfall over three, four, five hours,” Steeger says. “It’s like the bathtub fills and the water has no place to go.” The Baker Field retention pond would create such a place, at least for that part of town. Answers for other areas seriously impacted by ’07 flooding, like those along Crimmins Road, Renshaw Road and Wakemore Street, will have to follow.

Whether the Baker Field project can happen at all is an open question. In May Denise Ruzicka, director of the DEP’s Inland Water Resources Division, turned down the town’s initial application for the retention pond, citing inadequate documentation. Evonne Klein maintains that much of the documentation already exists on a computer disc the DEP was not able to open. Nevertheless, both state and local officials agree that a critical question remains unanswered: Will it be all right to compromise existing wetlands?

If the DEP says yes, it would be an unprecedented action, says Arthur Chris-tian, a supervising civil engineer with the DEP who has visited Darien and consulted with the town. For about fifteen years, the DEP has held to a policy of “zero wetlands removal,” specifically when those wetlands are seen as vital to the well-being of Long Island Sound, as is the case in Darien.

Currently the DEP is weighing a similar application in Meriden. “That hasn’t been resolved,” Christian says. “In other cases it has been decided against further wetland taking.”