Sept. 08--It's been nearly a year since Superstorm Sandy ravaged the coastline of Connecticut and hurled hundreds of homeowners into an uncharted morass of building permits, FEMA aid, flood insurance and other paperwork.
"We had about 4 1/2 feet of water inside the house," said Tim McFadden, who owns a home on the corner of Cooper Avenue and East Broadway in Milford, not far from Silver Sands State Park. "We had fixed up this place. My wife and I gutted the interior and we replaced just about everything over the last 18 years, and it was just to the point where everything was great."
McFadden said Tropical Storm Irene spared the home, which is his primary residence -- or at least, it was before Sandy struck on Oct. 29.
Now, his family is making the best of it at his mother-in-law's home.
"Everyone was evacuated," McFadden said, "and when we came back the next day, the water was still chest-high."
It wasn't long before the stack of repair bills reached the same level.
Buried in paper
"The permit process -- first you have to hire an architect, get soil samples -- it was $10,000 out-of-pocket," McFadden said. "What saved me was, we refinanced a week before the storm. So at least we had some money to work with."
Money, he adds, that will have to be paid back.
Although McFadden's house has been jacked up, it's still waiting for the mass of concrete that will eventually support it. The progress is agonizingly slow.
His home is eight feet higher than it used to be, but otherwise, it doesn't look much different since the storm slid offshore -- aside from the obvious water damage and the portable toilet in the corner of his property. But his son still stops by the place to mow the grass when it gets too tall.
"It's a long process," McFadden said.
It cost about $15,000 to jack up the home, he said. But the new foundation will cost McFadden at least $60,000. Meanwhile, prices have gone up for construction materials, so his money won't go as far as it would have months ago.
On Aug. 12, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and other officials held news conferences in Milford and Norwalk. They said $71 million in Sandy aid is headed to Connecticut -- and much of that money will go to people like McFadden.
The application forms for that money were made available a few weeks ago. The program is called the Owner Occupied Rehabilitation and Rebuilding Program, and forms are available on the state's website.
"This new HUD money is intended to fill the gaps," explained Tom Ivers, Milford's federal block grant coordinator. "People may be getting some money through their insurance policies, but their costs don't match up with what they're getting."
Municipal officials said it's difficult to determine how many owner-occupied homes remain vacant along the shoreline. By all accounts, Milford was the hardest-hit community, with about 200 homes still empty.
In Fairfield, about a dozen homes have yet to see their owners move back in, said Mark S. Barnhart, director of Fairfield'sOffice of Community and Economic Development.
"It's not easy to get a total picture of it," he said. "I would say it's a couple dozen owner-occupied homes still vacant."
Although Fairfield pulled through the ordeal in better shape than Milford, for those two dozen Fairfield residents still out of their homes, there is no less angst.
"Frustration -- that's a good word for it," Barnhart said. "It's an exhausting process. It's hard enough for me to understand, but for these people, it's a difficult and exhausting time."
Sandy victims received about $30,000 from FEMA in what's called Individual Assistance -- or IA money -- that could have been used for temporary housing and to replace belongings.
"It's been agonizing and expensive," Ivers said. "The way they do it, it's capped at $30,000, and when you hit that number, you're done. And for many people, that clock stated running with Irene (in 2011).
"A lot of people haven't been back in their homes since Irene," Ivers said. "So when they went back to FEMA after Sandy, FEMA said, 'Well, the house that was damaged wasn't your primary residence.' "
There are new flood maps in effect, too -- maps that have added more homes to coastal flood zones. And many homeowners already in a flood zone must pay considerably more for flood insurance because they're now classified as living in a high-risk wave velocity zone.
In Milford alone, about 800 homes were added to high-risk flood areas, and about 2,500 already in a high-risk zone will need to be raised.
"The city told me to use my structure money to raise my house," said Joe Mirmina, who lives three blocks away from McFadden on James Street in Milford. "But the bank won't let you do that. I have the money to repair my house, but I can't until the house is lifted."
Lifting homes is required if a house sustained more than 50 percent damage, according to officials.
"If the city determines that damage was more than 50 percent of the value of the building, you cannot legally occupy that structure until it's elevated," Ivers said.
Although McFadden's house is already raised, there's still plenty of work to do. He said when his house is finally repaired, he'll likely need to sell it to make ends meet.
"We asked about an SBA (Small Business Administration loan) and it will cost $800 extra a month for nine years," he said. "Who wants to refinance when you're 52 years old? I don't want to be paying a mortgage when I'm 80."
It's not like he had much choice. Plus, there were other unforeseen expenses.
McFadden, typical of many Sandy victims, is still paying property taxes even though his home is uninhabitable. He's also had to maintain his homeowner's insurance and flood insurance.
"The annual (homeowner's insurance) premium went up $1,000," McFadden said. "A thousand dollars. And the taxes went up, too."
McFadden, as with many Connecticut residents who are similarly situated, is at the age when he should be saving for his retirement. Instead, whatever extra money he has is being plowed back into his house.
Mention "retirement savings" to these storm victims and they shake their heads because the money that should be going into their 401(k) plans will be used to pay off SBA loans and other Sandy-related expenses.
McFadden said that his SBA loan interest rate is higher because his credit was good.
"If you have good credit, you get a high SBA loan rate, and if you have bad credit, you pay less," he said.
"It's just the opposite of what happens when you go in for, say, a car loan," Ivers said. "For home-owners affected by Sandy, if you have good credit, the SBA charges you full market rate. If you have bad credit, you get a low rate."
Ivers said the SBA's thinking might be to help those on the outs, but that's a flawed strategy.
"It's wrong to make those assumptions," he said. "A lot of poor people have great credit and many wealthy people have horrible credit. Look at Donald Trump. How many times has he declared bankruptcy?"
That's little comfort to those living along the Connecticut shoreline.
"Here's the thing -- they're making us raise our houses to save the government's money," Mirmina said. "Their attitude is, 'Well, if you can't afford it, walk away and someone will build an $800,000 McMansion and we'll collect more taxes.' "
Twenty years ago, the McFaddens and Mirminas will tell you, their homes were selling for less than other places in Milford, which is why they moved there in the first place.
It wasn't the seashore that drew them to the city's Silver Beach section. Back then, the neighborhood was a run-down part of Milford with crime and vacant houses and storefronts, so homes were cheap.
"But then we got the neighborhood all fixed up," McFadden said, almost wistfully.
It's not just homeowners along the shore whose lives were upended.
Officials announced in mid-August that Norwalk'sWashington Village, one of the oldest public housing projects in the Northeast, will be torn down and rebuilt in the same place, but about eight feet higher than it is now. The move is part of a $30 million federally funded effort to upgrade the place.
Dodging a bullet
While there's plenty of heartache in Milford, beach residents next door in Stratford have mostly shaken off the storm's wrath. These folks have gone on with their lives, thanks to the vagaries in the way winds, tides and waves behaved that night.
"Irene was a lot worse for us," said Marc Dillon, administrative aide for Mayor John Harkins.
Indeed, the homes along Stratford'sShoreline Drive look like they wouldn't have stood a chance against Sandy's wrath. The homes are literally right on the water; from some, you can dangle your feet into Long Island Sound at high tide.
Yet for most of them, damage to these homes was pegged at less than 50 percent, so their owners could collect flood insurance settlements, make repairs and move on. There was no need for a jack-up contractor.
"The thing that I had to do was to totally rewire," said June R. Levy, whose Shoreline Drive home is her summer residence; she lives in Hamden the rest of the year.
Most of the other homes on the street are occupied year-round. Levy said that her flood insurance settlement allowed her to refinish her floors, too -- floors that should have been replaced, she said, but there wasn't enough money for that.
"We got our FEMA money really quickly," said Beth Santa, whose home on Shoreline Drive suffered damage to the deck and the floor joists.
Santa, Levy and other longtime neighbors on the street know there will be a day of reckoning.
In the 1960s, the water didn't lap on their homes' pilings as it does today. Santa recalls when she was a kid, her parents would lay out beach blankets on the sand any time of the day.
"There was a huge beach in front of these homes back then," she said. "Huge. One hundred fifty feet wide at high tide."
But that beach, just like Connecticut's coastal communities before Irene and Sandy, has changed.
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