Rising above the tide: 5 years since Sandy
Turn the clock back five years and you would find thousands of homeowners along the shoreline of Long Island Sound with sludge on their floors, soggy wallboard and a confused morass of paperwork and agencies to deal with.
“It was like a river of muck in here,” said Milford resident Bibi Schmid, recalling what her home was like in the days after Superstorm Sandy. “When I first walked in, I had my flip-flops on and they just stuck to the floor. And two years later, it was really moldy.”
Drive down many of the Long Island Sound shoreline streets in Fairfield and New Haven counties in 2017 and you’ll see what amounts to an urban cityscape that wasn’t there before Sandy hit five years ago this weekend.
House after house has been jacked up nearly 3 yards or more in an expensive and often frustrating effort to secure them against the next Sandy. Instead of a row of old tumbledown shore-front cottages, a beachfront home today is typically reached via a staircase that brings to mind the Matterhorn.
“Oh, boy, it’s a climb,” said Elizabeth Anderson, who lives with her husband, Ron, on Hillside Avenue, a street that despite its name runs along Milford’s Far View Beach on the east side of the city. Their home, entirely rebuilt, is about 8 feet above street level now.
Sandy was in many respects the most destructive storm ever to hit Connecticut, leaving about 630,000 customers — encompassing close to a third of the state’s population — without electricity, as fallen trees left the power grid a tangled mess.
And those living along the shoreline had another nightmare to deal with. Despite a high tide still two hours from full, the storm brought a water surge measured at 9 feet at Bridgeport and New Haven, leaving scores of homes with layers of muck inside.
About 3,000 homes were damaged along the Connecticut coastline from Greenwich to north of New Haven. The preliminary financial toll was pegged at $360 million in Connecticut alone.
Connecticut has the second-highest exposure of vulnerable coastal assets on the East Coast — behind only Florida —state officials said. With more than 60 percent of the state’s population living in coastal communities, 32,000 homes in the 100-year flood plain and more than $542 billion in assets at risk, the state remains vulnerable to future storm events despite the efforts of repairs funded by government monies, and more stringent federal building codes.
After Sandy, 7,270 property owners in the state applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, including 6,000 along the shoreline — most of them in Fairfield and New Haven counties, according to state officials.
And by some standards, Sandy didn’t even pack that much of a punch. Less then a half-inch of rain fell, and the maximum recorded wind gust in the state was 76 mph, measured at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford. The superstorm was, after all, downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it made landfall.
Weather scientists use “inundation” scores — or feet above ground level — to get an idea of how badly a storm will damage buildings. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s post-Sandy report, those inundation levels were between 4 and 5 feet for much of Connecticut’s shoreline between Greenwich and East Haven, giving a better picture of the water levels seen in shoreline homes — many of which are situated only a foot or two feet above the high-tide line.
“As time passes, you realize that this was a climate-change incident,” said Bill Finch, who was Bridgeport’s mayor in 2012 when Sandy hit. “In Bridgeport, we were looking at the waves lapping up against our downtown (power) substation — if that were lost, much of the city would have been dark for weeks.”
Marina Village, one of Bridgeport’s largest public housing projects years ago, is gradually being abandoned, in part because of flooding seen during Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. The plan is to leave the 1940-era housing project as a green space, one that would absorb water during storm surges, Finch said.
Also flood-damaged in Bridgeport were the majority of the units in the Seaside Village co-op.
Still, Bridgeport suffered comparatively little damage from Sandy and from Irene a year earlier — mostly because miles of the city’s shore front has been allocated to parks, while much of the rest of it was already hardened with industrial development. The city claims Seaside Park is the largest municipal shore-front park in the world, and St. Mary’s by the Sea is another lengthy linear shore-front public space.
Finch commended showman P.T. Barnum — also a Bridgeport former mayor (1875-76) and developer — for leaving Seaside Park undeveloped.
In the five years since Sandy hit, construction has been the one constant in a changing landscape. And a Fairfield neighborhood made up mostly of small capes, colonials and ranch houses was changed forever.
According to Fairfield Assessor Ross Murray, 200 homes have been elevated — pushed up another story — to meet FEMA guidelines. About 250 homes have been, or are in the process of being, rebuilt, according to Fairfield Planning and Zoning Director James Wendt.
Wendt said while the pace of existing homes being elevated has slowed, the construction of new homes has not.
In the two blocks of Rowland Road between Edward Street and Fairfield Beach Road, the changes are noticeable: new construction of larger homes, smaller homes that were just lifted, and, here and there, a few of the original homes that remain untouched.
“The neighborhood has definitely changed,” said Ken Carvell, the deputy assessor in Fairfield, a change that had been under way, but “the momentum was definitely propelled by Sandy.”
The scene is the same in Milford, where the sounds of saws and hammers are still the norm in many beachfront neighborhoods.
A year after Sandy hit, Hearst Connecticut Media spoke with Michael Tarantino, who owns West Shore Realty in Milford. At the time, he said the real estate market along the shore looked glum, with scores of abandoned homes. Many of their owners, facing mounting bills and with little hope of moving back in soon, had to sell for what they could get and move someplace else.
Today, Tarantino said, he sees more smiles along the shoreline.
“We’re extremely busy now,” he said. “A lot of people have taken advantage of the state program (Shore Up CT) which has lifted several homes in the area, and this has increased activity.”
Tarantino said that homes immediately along the shore can still be a hard sell, but even those have been moving — selling from $500,000 to more than $1.4 million.
“I live on the water myself, and you’re seeing a lot of new faces and a lot of new construction,” he said. “It’s definitely changed from what it was four and five years ago.”
After Sandy, $159.2 million in federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding was awarded to the state for recovery. Of this, $40.3 million was dedicated to owner-occupied homes. That program has since been closed to new applicants.
Experts say it’s only a matter of time before the next Sandy hits — a prophecy made more disturbing because nature is increasingly showing signs of change.
Connecticut will see a sea-level rise of about 2 feet by 2050 and 3 feet by 2085, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. And some scenarios quoted by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have seas rising by more than 2 meters — about 61/2 feet — by 2100. The seas are rising for two reasons — melting glaciers and ice caps combined with thermal expansion of ocean, experts scientists say.
Rising seas aside, the lure of living near the shore remains a strong pull.
“I’m so, so happy to be back in my house,” said Charlotte Schmid, who, it can be said has been through hell and high water. She lives across the street from Milford’s Cedar Beach, and her bungalow was turned into a reeking, muck-filled purgatory.
“We had to shovel the mud out of the living room,” said her sister, Bibi.
The two endured a mind-numbing ordeal with government officials — state, federal and local — over getting their home raised and rehabilitated. They had to live in a tiny apartment in West Haven during the three years that their home was uninhabitable. In the end, they said, they wound up paying for most of the cost of the rehab themselves, other than the settlement from flood insurance.
At one point, the sisters said, historical preservationists held up the project over the placement of a door. “And you can’t exactly call this house historically significant,” Charlotte Schmid said.
But talk to them now and they sound as happy as clams.
“If you offered me a million dollars, I still wouldn’t leave — that’s how happy I am here,” Charlotte said, while looking out over the marsh. “We kayak right out from our backyard.”
Tim McFadden, of Milford, who lives with his wife, Eleanor, just east of Silver Sands State Park, had similar sentiments. Four years ago, he told Hearst Connecticut Media he was thinking of cutting his losses and getting out.
But things have changed since then.
“We just had to borrow from the SBA to get back in,” he said.“We had to break the bank, but we love it here. A lot of our neighbors had a short sale and got out, but that’s the chance you take when you live down here. It’s beautiful.”