Beachfront woes: Rebuilding after Irene

Wendy Safyre’s saga about how Tropical Storm Irene impacted her life is one that needs to be told.
Her story may not be completely unique among people who live along the Milford shoreline, where hundreds of houses were damaged in the August storm, but even city officials admit Safyre’s path back to her home and her normal life will be a complicated one.

Safyre has been out of her Caroline Street house since the storm, and she doesn’t expect it will be ready to move back into for another three years, maybe a little bit more. She’s renting an apartment downtown in the interim, as she spends her days battling insurance companies and government agencies.
The Milford woman said she left her home the day before the storm to stay with her daughter. Her house lies at the end of a dead-end street off East Broadway, between Silver Sands Beach and the marsh that makes up much of Silver Sands State Park. When the storm hit, her house got hit by water from both sides.
“All my belongings and furniture were damaged,” she said. “I had to tear down walls to expose them and dry them out. Lots of floor boards had to be pulled up.”
She bought the house 11 years ago for the beauty of the lot. And it is beautiful, standing between the marsh, with its deer and wildlife, and the sands of Long Island Sound.
But it has been a curse in some ways. She put a lot of money into it when she bought it to make sure it would withstand storms, and she was assured that a dam down the street would provide her protection. But it didn’t.
The dam, which she said didn’t work, and a phragmites restoration program in the marsh, which she said created ponds and poor drainage, added to the perfect storm conditions that wreaked havoc on her home.
“All I have left are some walls,” she said.
Rebuilding or leveling the house would seem the logical options. But for Safyre, neither one is easy.
Because of new shoreline zoning regulations, if Safyre wants to restore her home, she also has to elevate it out of the flood zone. That’s not cheap: One city official estimated it at $150,000.
Milford’s zoning officials said they were forced to incorporate elevation mandates into local regulations so that 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.
“These individuals are taking a variety of tacks,” Mathiasen said. “Some 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. Unfortunately, even those with flood insurance including an ‘increased cost of compliance’ policy are finding that the insurance money only covers a fraction of what it costs to elevate a home.”
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.
One shoreline resident who knows a lot about the process said many people are in similar situations to Safyre’s, and they may not even know it.
The resident didn’t want to be named for various reasons, but he said he will probably have to sell his beachfront house at a loss because he cannot afford to do the elevation and the other repairs that he had finally saved up money for.
“This is one of the most intrusive regulatory decisions, like eminent domain,” the resident said. “Its impact on people in distress is onerous.”
“Onerous” is probably not a strong enough word where Safyre is concerned. At age 70, she spends her time trying to maneuver a process that includes flood insurance, FEMA and a presidential grant that might help her pay for part of the big and costly project she has ahead.
But all the pieces have to line up: In a way, she has to be convincing and lucky, and make sure all her paperwork is complete and accurate and that she meets all the guidelines.
Add to that some special challenges: Her house is made of concrete block, not wood, so she had a hard time just finding someone confident they could elevate it without damaging it. Because it’s concrete, it has to be raised slowly.
The easy way out might have been to level the house and sell the property. But she can’t do that because she has a reverse mortgage on the house.
Community Development Director Robert Gregory said, “Because of that she couldn’t demolish her house because she’d have to pay back that money. She’s in a very unusual situation.”
So Safyre, who said Gregory has been a great help as she traverses a tangled and complicated process, is plugging along, filling out forms, attending meetings, asking questions, and waiting for answers. She knows a lot about the process, more, she said, than she ever wanted to know.
It’s been trying.
“I told children in my church school class just before the storm that God has a plan,” Safyre said. “After the storm, I had to take my own words to heart. So ‘God has a plan’ is my motto. And, ‘If I can get through this, I can get through anything.’”