Judy Ryan has a new view from her dining room window: After having to elevate her house after Tropical Storm Irene, she can now see Long Island Sound from her window.
While there are certainly some good points to the Point Beach resident’s saga, like the new view, hers wasn’t an easy ride since the sea swept through the lower floor of her home Aug. 28.
“There were eight inches of water on the first floor,” Ryan said, explaining that floors, walls, the water heater and furniture were all destroyed.
Like many other residents in the low-lying beach area, Ryan left her home to stay with a relative as Irene approached.
When she returned to her two-story house, her home for more than 40 years, Ryan was faced with what a city assessment said was $70,000 in damages.
She hired local contractor, Ken Daigle, to start on repairs, tapping home insurance funds for the project. But before Daigle got far, Ryan received a letter from the city saying that since her house suffered more than 50% damage from Irene, she would have to elevate it before she could continue interior repairs.
Desperate to return home, Ryan began an exhaustive process of filling out forms and documents she would need to begin the process of elevating and rebuilding her home. Homeowner’s insurance, flood insurance and some government funds helped her offset some of the cost of rebuilding.
Despite her efforts she still ended up having to find nearly $50,000 of additional money — some of which she borrowed from her retirement account — to get the work done.
Elevation alone cost $60,000, a sizeable sum. But Ryan said she figured she’d have to just bite the bullet.
“I realized if I was going to make repairs, I’d have to elevate the house first, so I just did it,” she said, crediting Daigle with handling the details of the work for her.
She lived at her sister’s apartment in Bridgeport, and stayed there about eight months while elevation and then interior work on her home was complete.
“I don’t think I could have done it without friends and family who helped me move all my things into a pod, and then out again when I was ready to move back home,” she said.
Ryan moved back in on Mother’s Day, and is still unpacking and sorting all the things she brought back home. Insurance didn’t cover the replacement of much of her furniture and household contents, she said, due to depreciation, so she had to pay for new furniture to replace what was damaged.
And now she’s settling back into a neighborhood that, despite some tidal threats, she said is the best place in the world to live because the neighbors are like family.
Even though she’s a bit higher off the ground now, she still steps out onto her porch and chats with the people next door and across the street.
Many other homes in this area have already been elevated, some during an Army Corps of Engineer project in the 1990s. Some are being lifted now, in response to the new flood regulations.
“It’s kind of nice up here in the trees,” Ryan said. “I get to see all the buds. I was wondering if I’d have problems going up and down the stairs, but for now it’s OK. Getting the groceries in and out is a little more work, and so is cooking outside because I can’t just walk out my door anymore into the backyard.”
Milford’s zoning officials said they were forced to incorporate elevation mandates into local regulations so Milford property owners would continue to be eligible for flood insurance.
“If we did not enforce this requirement, the entire city would lose its eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program,” said Jocelyn Mathiasen, the city’s director of permitting and land use. “There are good public policy reasons behind the requirements — the federal government does not want to pay for people to rebuild something in a way that makes it vulnerable to future flood damage, and expense — but we recognize that on a personal level it can cause a lot of hardship.”
Before any home that was in the path of Irene can get a permit for restoration work, the city inspects it to determine if the home was damaged more than 50%. If it was, the home must be brought into compliance with today’s requirements for flood zone construction: Elevated with no living spaces below the base flood elevation.
As of April, the city had conducted 138 total inspections, and 44 were properties with more than 50% damage.
Some homeowners have walked away from the properties, some are elevating, and some are tearing down and building anew.
“A few have chosen to do repairs without permits and are living in the homes without bringing them into compliance, which is at their own risk,” Mathiasen said.
Of those who have chosen to elevate, a number of them are waiting to see if Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding comes through that would help defray those costs.
Steven Marcus and Tamari Witkin-Marcus, who live across the street from Ryan, are waiting to see if federal funds will be granted to help them elevate their home.
After Irene, the couple found alternate places to live and started to renovate their home almost immediately because there was extensive damage to their first floor. But when contractor Bill Myers of Myers Construction was just about to finish up work, the city stepped in and said work would have to halt, and the house would have to be elevated, then interior work done, before Steven and Tamari could move back in.
Tamari handled the bulk of the insurance and regulation battles while Steven found places to carry on his job as a graphic designer — he had worked out of the home before Irene.
With help from a lawyer, Tamari finally convinced city officials to let them finish renovations and move back home as they waited to see if grants would come through to elevate the house later.
“How long can people stay at their sister’s, their uncle’s, their brother’s?” Steven said of the ordeal he and many others faced after Irene. “People need to get back home.”
Tropical Storm Irene may not have approached the level of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but in many ways the impact was just as severe, Steven said. People watched their life savings be washed away, and they had to rebuild, or move, as they tried to navigate government regulations and the insurance companies they paid — in his case $2,000 a year — to cover their losses.
The neighbors, he said, at Point Beach were great, all helping each other throughout the ordeal.
City officials, like Community Development Director Robert Gregory and Assistant City Planner Emmeline Harrigan, were indispensable, he said. Gregory went through grant applications line by line with him and others in his position, and Harrigan displayed untiring compassion in explaining and detailing flood regulations.
So now, the couple waits to see if they will get money to elevate, facing a directive that they have to elevate their home. They don’t really know what will happen if the funding doesn’t come through.
It’s been stressful. But of course, there have been bright spots.
They have rebuilt the lower level of their home, and it’s shiny and new; and they have found kindness in their neighborhood and around the city.
“It takes a village — well, this is a village,” Steven said.