Fairfield homeowners still face wrenching choices months after Sandy
Published 6:55 am, Monday, March 4, 2013
Jackie Beagon loved her life along Fairfield's shoreline, where she and her husband walked to the beach and church, and bicycled around the neighborhood. But Superstorm Sandy ripped it all apart, and the couple was forced to sell their flood-ravaged home in town, where they lived for a quarter-century.
"We were extremely overwhelmed and didn't know what to do," Beagon said. "The money just kept adding up. We didn't just lose a place to sleep. We lost 25 years of our life."
Beagon and her husband James, who are renting an apartment in Stratford, are among hundreds of homeowners in Connecticut facing stark choices after the storm flooded their homes four months ago: Sell, demolish and rebuild or elevate. Some are selling because it's too costly or overwhelming to rebuild, while others are taking on huge debts and enduring many months out of their homes while they repair and elevate.
In flood zones, houses must comply with current sea level elevation requirements if the cost to repair damage exceeds half the value of the structure, excluding the value of the land, officials say.
The issue is also playing out in harder-hit New Jersey, where about 346,000 homes and businesses were damaged by the storm and the state's two U.S. senators have called for the federal government to help homeowners elevate their homes.
In Connecticut, about 3,000 homes were damaged by Sandy, including about 500 that received major damage, state officials said.
In Fairfield, 100 to 200 homes suffered that level of damage and homeowners will have to elevate, demolish or sell, said Jim Wendt, the town's assistant planning director. So far, 12 permits have been issued to elevate houses, he said, noting that many homeowners are waiting on insurance settlements and looking into other potential funding sources.
"The shoreline is going to be more resistant to flood damage than it was before," Wendt said, "unfortunately at a fairly high cost to a lot of folks."
In Milford, about 200 homes will have to be raised, said Mayor Ben Blake.
"It's a huge undertaking," Blake said. "Even people that are well off, it's an expense that challenges them."
Keith Rhodes, a 44-year-old marketing executive in Fairfield, has been out of his house since the storm and figures his family won't be back until May. His wife is due to give birth to their second child about two weeks later in June.
Rhodes, who is elevating his house about 5 feet, gutting the first floor and replacing the deteriorating foundation, figures his out-of-pocket expenses will be around $200,000 after exhausting the maximum flood insurance coverage of $250,000. He's had to borrow against retirement accounts and is counting on a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration.
If the loan doesn't come through, he said, "I'm going to call the bank of Dad."
"It's nerve-racking but you don't have a choice and you look around and you see where people have it much worse off than we have it," Rhodes said. "There are older people that have lived in that neighborhood for 40 years and if they are forced to elevate they cannot afford to stay in the house."
Homeowners in flood zones who have flood insurance can get up to $30,000 to help pay the cost to elevate their homes if they are required to do so, far less than the estimates some homeowners are receiving from contractors. New flood zone maps are raising the elevation requirement by a foot or more, depending on location.
Some homeowners traumatized by flooding are voluntarily raising their homes, figuring it will reduce their insurance premiums and help with resale.
Beagon's former neighborhood, which was so flooded for days that residents used kayaks and canoes to reach their homes, has been transformed with the clanking sound of jackhammers and sledgehammers. Large houses sit high in the air on steel beams and wood supports while foundations are built up to the new height along with staircases and other work.
A 60-year-old retired interior decorator and seamstress, Beagon said elevating her house alone would cost about $70,000. She said she wanted to tear down and rebuild because she was worried that the house had sat in contaminated water for weeks. But she couldn't afford it along with rising taxes and she had limited flood insurance.
Beagon doesn't know where they'll wind up, but won't be near the coast and the couple will rent.
She couldn't bear to go by her house until recently. It was torn down. She can live with that, but misses her routines like saying good morning to the two little girls who lived next door.
"We were very comfortable there," Beagon said.