In Sandy's wake, East Lyme cottage down but not out

Robin Soule, center, and her husband, John Eberle, background, of Niantic and Devan Dupuis watch while Chris Leitkowski of Leitkowski Construction uses a skid steer to break up the roof of the garage so they can retrieve items for their sailboat and windsurfers. The garage was swept away during Superstorm Sandy and broke apart. Most of it wound up on the opposite side of the pond from their summer cottage (the dark gray building in the background on the left) in the Crescent Beach area of Niantic.

East Lyme - Robin Soule doesn't want her children to have a reef instead of the summer home her family has owned for more than 100 years.

As Superstorm Sandy battered the coastline Oct. 29, the waves pushed her garage into a nearby pond, ripped the deadbolt off the front door, soaked the couch and rugs and inundated the basement with sand.

Soule is determined to repair the cottage and have it endure for future generations, even in the face of future storms.

The Soule house stands on Atlantic Street in Crescent Beach, right next to McCook Point Park. The first floor of the cottage with brown siding, white railings and green shutters was raised several feet above ground at the time of its construction in the late 1800s. A seawall separates the back walkway from the sandy beach on Niantic Bay.

The Soule family bought the house in 1909 for $3,000 and has passed it on ever since, Robin Soule said.

Soule, raised in Niantic, is a third-grade teacher at Flanders Elementary School. Her parents met in Lake Placid, N.Y., and eventually moved to Niantic in the late 1950s to a year-round home Soule and her husband later bought. It is where they raised their three daughters: Kate, 22, Kelly, 19, and Lauryn, 14.

Soule and her cousins share the summer house, named "Suliote," a derivative of her surname. Her great-grandfather, a shipbuilder in Freeport, Maine, had a ship with the same name.

The relatives divide up the summer weeks so they each get a chance to stay at the home. Soule's cousin, Bill Widnall, is a world-champion sailor, and her late father, Colin Soule, was one of the founders of the Niantic Bay Yacht Club. The family has enjoyed summer boat races on the waters in front of their house.

The three-story cottage is where Soule took her first steps. It's where she got ready for her wedding and then celebrated with friends afterward. It's the place where her older daughters and their friends gather in the summertime.

The house has beaten storms before, even surviving the Hurricane of 1938. Soule said she believes its structural alignment and placement of the chimney helped keep it standing during that and other hurricanes.

Before Sandy reached Connecticut that day in late October, Soule visited the cottage. She had a "strong bad feeling" about this storm. She gathered family items - photos, books about the Hurricane of 1938 and family albums from the early 1900s.

She and her daughters "hugged" the house the night before the storm and called on their ancestors to help protect it. "You're doing it all, but you don't want to be saying goodbye to it," she said wistfully about the experience. "I would fight to the grave before I let it go easily."

Rebuilding for the future

In the end the cottage largely withstood Sandy's fury, though the lower side walls of the house buckled in. The storm surge pushed several feet of rocks and sand into the basement; now one has to crouch down to walk inside it. The force of the storm also pushed the garage off her property. Its roof was soon floating in a nearby pond.

In all, damage reached into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Soule must now decide how to remove the sand from her basement and whether to tackle that task in the winter or the spring. And as she rebuilds, she must also consider the future.

"I've seen so much change in the tide levels," Soule said one recent morning as she looked out at the beach. While the waves crashed gently, she said she remembers when the beach stretched farther out from the house. The high tides now reach close to the cottage.

She said she thinks storms like Sandy will continue to occur.

After Tropical Storm Irene hit Connecticut in 2011, the Soule family and their neighbor decided to rebuild and strengthen sections of a seawall to protect the homes from surging tides. Soule's husband, John Eberle, a civil engineer, helped coordinate the efforts completed this year, which included pilings buried 15 feet into the ground. They both think the structure helped save the house from destruction.

"We're very grateful," said Soule.

Among the debris washed up in the storm, Soule has found a horseshoe that she now keeps on her back porch.

The storm also damaged the Soules' small Sunfish sailboat. When Sandy had departed, Soule decided to leave it out in case anyone wanted it to take it and make repairs. Her neighbor, Dorothy Breen, saw it lying outside. When Soule told her she wanted to give it away, Breen said she knew the right person for it: her friend Lynn Butler's son.

Roy Hubbard, Butler's 23-year-old son, who studies at the University of Maine, taught himself to sail as a teenager in front of the yacht club. Sailing is his "passion in life," said Butler. "We're going to continue this legacy that started a long time ago," she added.

As Soule said: "The yacht club started out in front here."

A continued
sense of adventure

On a chilly day in early December, Soule, dressed in jeans with her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and baseball cap, climbed into the loader machine that her contractor, Chris Leitkowski, had used earlier to pick up and haul debris from the garage to a Dumpster.

Leitkowski, of Uncasville-based Leitkowski Construction, and worker Devan Dupuis had been working to remove the roof that was sitting beside the small pond near Atlantic Street. With their help, Soule and her husband had been able to recover the windsurfer and sailboat masts, booms and sails pinned under the blown-away roof of her garage. They also retrieved gardening tools and a shovel.

Soule had always wanted to drive a loader machine, and now, thanks to Sandy, she said, she had the chance.

Then, at the controls of the loader, she moved over to the debris of her garage and began to try to pick up the pieces.

k.drelich@theday.com

While standing with her husband, John Eberle, in front of their Niantic cottage that was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Robin Soule reacts after Chris Leitkowski of Leitkowski Construction, not shown, tells her she can drive the skid steer to break up the garage roof that was blown off during the storm to look for whatever may be buried in the debris.
Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day While standing with her husband, John Eberle, in front of their Niantic cottage that was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Robin Soule reacts after Chris Leitkowski of Leitkowski Construction, not shown, tells her she can drive the skid steer to break up the garage roof that was blown off during the storm to look for whatever may be buried in the debris.
Right: Robin Soule, left, gets a thank-you hug from Lynn Butler, also of Niantic, after they and Dorothy Butler, not shown, loaded the Sunfish sailboat Soule gave to Butler's family into an SUV on Dec. 1. Soule's family summer cottage was damaged and the garage swept away when Superstorm Sandy hit the Crescent Beach area of Niantic in October.
Buy Photo Photos by Dana Jensen/The Day Right: Robin Soule, left, gets a thank-you hug from Lynn Butler, also of Niantic, after they and Dorothy Butler, not shown, loaded the Sunfish sailboat Soule gave to Butler's family into an SUV on Dec. 1. Soule's family summer cottage was damaged and the garage swept away when Superstorm Sandy hit the Crescent Beach area of Niantic in October.
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