Waiting to go home: Resident lives in camper in driveway while waiting for Sandy funds to rebuild

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a series about Milford shoreline residents still waiting for government funds to rebuild their homes after Storm Sandy. To read the first in the series, click here.

Lori Robinson has been living in a camper in her driveway for two years, ever since Superstorm Sandy hit her beach area neighborhood.

She’s in the paperwork stage of the process of rebuilding her home, so that’s good news, but the past two years haven’t been exactly fun. There’s been lots of paperwork as she’s applied for government funds to help rebuild, and there’s been a lot of waiting and returning with plans to city offices to get approvals.

Still, this shoreline resident tries to put on a brave face: Her sense of humor, clearly evident in the pink flamingos she decorated her camper with last Christmas, has helped. But still, even a good sense of humor has its limits.

Robinson’s home was slammed by Irene before Sandy. She’d finished a $10,000 kitchen remodel and other renovations that gave her the house she’d always wanted when Sandy hit and wiped all that work away.

She was home when Sandy sent about six feet of water rushing into her house: She was camped out in an upper level with friends. They knew the storm was coming, but they didn’t expect what they got. Much of the main living area of the house was wrecked, and during the storm Robinson had to descend to the lower level, wearing a pair of goggles, and practically swim to her macaw and rescue the bird from the rising tide.

With more than 65% of her house damaged by the two storms, Robinson had to elevate or rebuild. She chose to rebuild, “to start from scratch.”

With limited funds, especially following the Irene fixes, Robinson, who works for the city’s sanitation department, began applying for funding. She said she will be the first in Milford to rebuild using Sandy government funds, and she attributes that to her tenacity at filling out all the forms required to get the work going.

She is expecting $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds, flood insurance money plus another $30,000 in government money, which she said will get her nearly to the $250,000 she was told it will cost to rebuild.

Last week contractors visited, beginning the latest step in an ongoing process to get the rebuild going. A bid still has to be approved, and then the winning bidder will have to secure the permits to get the work done.

She’s not exactly sure when she’ll be able to move out of her camper and back into a house. But she’s hopeful.

Living in a camper for two years was really the most logical option for the Milford woman, partly because she has two dogs.

“Where are you supposed to go if you have pets?” she said.

It’s cozy, yet very cramped, and it’s sort of like camping on a daily basis, Robinson said. She showers at a neighbor’s house, and has to fill a container with water to do some of her household chores.

“This is the way I’ve been living for two years. It’s been frustrating, to say the least,” she said.

Catholic Charities, the Red Cross and United Way “have been wonderful through all this,” she said. “They really have.”

Agencies like those have made the situation less onerous, but still, Robinson jokes that if the process doesn’t start moving a little more quickly, residents may be looking at the next Doris Gagnon.

The late Doris Gagnon lived in a ramshackle trailer for years at Silver Sands beach in protest of the government taking the land to build a state park. Robinson remembers Gagnon fondly, and says she sees similarities between the way Doris lived and the way she’s living now.

And then there’s Christa

If living in a camper sounds bad, Christa Kelly of Milford may be able to beat that: She and her teenage children are living in the lower level of her ex-husband’s house, and she’s not sure when she’ll be able to go home.

Kelly has been out of her house since Irene — about three years.

She’s paying some rental money to live in her ex-husband’s house in Devon, and still paying a mortgage and insurance on her home on the other side of town in the Point Beach neighborhood.

For a single mom who earns $38,000 a year working full time, that’s no easy feat. She also spends a lot of time driving back and forth to the other side of town, for school and other activities her children are involved in.

She has to have her home elevated, and while she may secure funds for that, she isn’t sure where the money will come from to fix the interior. She’s been approved for a block grant, but said, “It’s start, stop, start, stop,” and she doesn’t know where the process is right now.

There have been framing issues, and she’s being sued by a company that started doing repairs after the house was hit by Irene.

“Life is like a sit-com,” she said. “I’ve had furniture donated but no house to put it in. It’s ridiculous. Who’d have thought I’d be paying for a house I couldn’t live in for three years?

“My kids’ handprints are on the foundation, and now someone else may get the house if I can’t get back in,” she added, fighting back tears.

On top of it all, she said she’s gotten calls from the health department complaining about the condition of her Point Beach home.

Waiting for help

These are just two of the stories that can be found along the shoreline among people waiting for federal dollars to help them rebuild and fix their storm-damaged homes. Bill Richards, Milford’s deputy director of emergency management, agrees the process is complicated for residents and says there are several Catch 22s that leave people especially frustrated.

For example, people who got insurance money to repair the inside of their homes could not use the money for elevation, nor could they use it for interior repairs until the house was elevated. If there is a mortgage on the property, the mortgage holder has held the insurance money in escrow until the house is elevated.

There are three sources of funding for Sandy victims to help with elevation, Richards explained. The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, a state program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program, which Richards said takes the longest. There are 27 pending elevations under that program.

Next, there is a nationwide FEMA program, the Flood Mitigation Assistance program, and there are seven homes pending elevation under that program.

There is also Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money available for home acquisitions, to purchase homes that are beyond repair. There are four homes pending acquisition under this program. The city has to approve the acquisition, Richards said, and then the homeowner will get 75% of the value of the home from FEMA. “The property then has to remain as open space forever,” Richards said.

Finally, for Storm Sandy victims, there are Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief funds, which are administered through the Connecticut Department of Housing. There are 70 rehabilitation and/or elevations pending under that program.

“That’s the money we should see first,” Richards said.