Through the open door at 71 Rhoda Ave., the balmy fall breeze is accompanied by a cacophony of construction noise. It's been like this for a while now, as the small street once populated with capes and Colonials built in the late-1940s recovers from the devastating impact of Superstorm Sandy.
A year after the sweeping storm surged ashore last Oct. 29, many of Ken Lee's Rhoda Avenue neighbors still haven't returned. Some never will.
"It drove the seniors out," said Lee of the storm, which left some homes along the town's shoreline submerged under three and four feet of water. Some were totally demolished by the winds and storm surge. Several floated away.
Lee's parents, both now deceased, bought the Rhoda Avenue home 50 years ago for about $20,000.
On some lots in the shoreline neighborhood, the modest homes have been torn down. Others are being elevated to meet new, tougher regulations set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect against damage in future storms.
"They took down houses and trees, and I saw houses I've never seen before," Lee said, the light-gray cape now dwarfed by the new construction.
"I can see into people's houses ... It's a little disconcerting. All the trees are gone, the development, losing the people who have been here all my life."
Awash in changes
Lee said some of those longtime residents, now considered senior citizens, left because they couldn't afford the expense of raising their homes to comply with new standards, or couldn't deal with the steeper staircases those elevated homes now require.
"Developers scooped them up," he said, accelerating a process that had been begun several years ago: older homes bought for the valuable shoreline properties where they sat. Subsequently, they were torn down and replaced with much larger structures. "The value of this neighborhood wasn't the houses built in 1940, it was the land they were built on," Lee said.
"This area is no longer senior-friendly," First Selectman Michael Tetreau said of the costly, newer houses in the town's shoreline neighborhoods. "It dramatically changes the nature and character."
Lee said his family was lucky -- only a few inches of water from Sandy made it into their home, limiting repairs that were needed. Even so, the house stood empty for six months while floors were ripped up, electrical wiring replaced and new kitchen cabinets installed. Though the Lees were not there last Christmas, he said he returned to put some Christmas lights on the house -- there was still one family living on the street and he didn't want them to feel alone. The lights stayed up until he returned in April.
Assistant Planning Director James Wendt can stand in the middle of one of those beach neighborhood streets and point out which homes are new construction and which ones were lifted.
"This neighborhood has been changed forever," Wendt said. More homes are being elevated, he said, once homeowners see what their neighbors have done.
Rising tide of regulations
Wendt said not every house needed to be lifted -- that requirement only kicks in if the cost of the storm damage is greater than 50 percent of the value of the house. But he said meeting the new FEMA regulations may help soften the blow of higher flood insurance premiums, especially for the older homes that had been receiving federal subsidies for the insurance premiums.
Sifting through the FEMA regulations, dealing with insurance adjustors and trying to find out what grants and loans are available is no easy task, Wendt said. Nor does it help, he said, when the rules keep changing. The Town Plan and Zoning Commission had to change its own regulations for the beach district along Fairfield Beach Road to allow homes to be taller because of the new flood zone elevations.
New flood zone maps took effect in July, increasing minimum elevation for dwellings on Fairfield Beach Road to 13 feet east of Reef Road and 15 feet west of Reef Road. For most homes south of the Old Post Road, the minimum elevation is 11 feet. The new elevations are based on the projected impact of a 100-year storm, or a storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring each year. Sandy's flooding was below a 100-year storm's level, but came close.
Wendt said the average $30,000 homeowners can receive from FEMA might cover the cost of simply raising a home, but not the full price tag since an elevation project also means a new foundation, and new electrical and plumbing connections. The total cost ends up being upwards of $150,000.
Each homeowner, Wendt said, needs to take several factors into account, even those who did not suffer the type of damage that would require them to raise their house. "It's an individual decision," he said, and for many it depends on if they had flood insurance, what kind of reimbursement they received from their policy or FEMA, and the cost of future flood insurance.
Elevating a home that wasn't significantly damaged could translate into savings on future flood insurance premiums, Wendt said. Moving equipment out of basements can also help. Flood insurance subsidies that were provided to residents who own older homes that were compliant when built are being phased out, and residents who don't have a mortgage but live in a high-hazard flood zone will be required to have flood insurance when they sell or take out a home-equity loan.
Help available, but not enough
There are two different programs to help homeowners. One makes about $9 million available for homes throughout the state, Wendt said, and is for "pre-emptive elevations." The grant money would partially reimburse homeowners who elevated their homes at least a foot above FEMA's base flood elevation up to 75 percent of the cost.
The second is the Owner Occupied Rehabilitation and Rebuilding Program, which has a $30 million pot of money, the bulk of which will go to communities in Fairfield and New Haven counties. Assistance ranging from $10,000 to $150,000 is available to replace and rehabilitate homes, implement mitigation measures and make homes more resilient to future storm damage. Expenses not covered by insurance, FEMA or any other funding sources are eligible. Application for the grant money is made by the towns; individuals must file with the town, and an office has opened at the Senior Center, 100 Mona Terrace, to guide homeowners through the process.
And while the FEMA programs are helpful, said Tetreau, they don't really go far enough in a high-priced area like Fairfield County, a sentiment echoed by Lee.
Tetreau said $30,000 won't cover elevating a house, but could probably buy a whole new house in, say, Lousiana. "They need to address that," he said. "You can't use the same number for everyone."
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