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Rising two stories above Niantic Bay for nearly 100 years, the Barrett family's summer house in the Crescent Beach section of Niantic experienced a sudden growth spurt during the past year.
"It's being raised really slowly, 16 to 17 inches at a time," Donald Barrett of Granby said as he stood beside the cottage that's been in his family since 1919. "I'm planning not to have to worry about this ever again."
The cottage, after surviving hurricanes in 1938, 1954 and several others since, sustained heavy damage in October 2012 when surge from Superstorm Sandy scoured its pilings, tore off the porch and flooded the lower level. Now, months after many shoreline homeowners have finished Sandy repairs, Barrett and others in southeastern Connecticut are still fixing battered properties, buttressing houses against the next storm and awaiting financial help.
"It'll be 5½ feet higher than it was when all the new piers are in place," Barrett said, as he showed how the house is being lifted on hydraulic jacks and where new concrete piers are being installed to replace the original brick ones.
The Barrett family was among about 1,000 New London County property owners who collectively received $613,317 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover repairs and losses from Sandy. The $70,000 in assistance the Barretts have thus far received, however, came with the condition that the house would have to be raised to 12 feet above the mean high tide level. Just to be on the safe side, it's being raised 14 feet above that level.
"I don't want to go through this again," Barrett said, adding that coordinating the repairs and compiling paperwork for the insurance settlement and government assistance has been very time-consuming.
In recognition of the lingering needs created by Sandy, the state this fall opened five assistance centers along the shoreline - including one at the senior center in Groton - and established a new $30 million grant program. The grants are intended to help pay for making properties more resistant to damage from future storms, and to provide reimbursement for repairs already completed, said Hermia Delaire, program manager for the state Department of Housing's disaster recovery program. Grants range from $10,000 to $150,000.
"Some are already receiving checks," she said. "There is still a lot of recovery to go."
One applicant for assistance was Tammy Jo Ferdula of Mystic. On a recent afternoon at the Groton Senior Center, Ferdula sat at a computer with intake counselor Dawn Erady, filling out the application. During Sandy, she said, high winds broke windows and felled several large trees that broke a fence and damaged plumbing at the house she shares with her three children.
"I've had so many repairs on my house, I had to put my mortgage payments on the back burner," Ferdula said.
After she submitted a request for $10,000 in reimbursement, Erady told her about additional documents she'd need to complete the application.
"They'll send someone out to evaluate your application," Erady told Ferdula. "It'll take about 30 to 45 days to get an answer."
As of last week, 31 local residents have visited the Groton intake center, which will be open through the end of March, Delaire said. Eight have submitted applications and of those, six are in the document verification process, one is complete and undergoing review, and one is in the grant determination stage, she said.
One local resident still in need of assistance is Joann Samson of Niantic. The 71-year-old nurse shares a beachfront house in the Oak Grove section with her 75-year-old husband, Donald, who is confined to a wheelchair. The couple made what had been their summer house for 44 years their permanent residence four years ago after selling their home in Farmington. They intended to spend their retirement years there. But when Sandy tore off the front wall of the house, the relaxing retirement they had envisioned suddenly was swept away along with it.
"We had to move across the street for seven months," said Samson, who then described a litany of problems with contractors, FEMA complications and the high costs of repairs for which they weren't financially prepared. Repairs to the upstairs, the heating system and other areas of the house are not yet complete.
"We had to borrow a lot of money," Samson said. She estimates they've already spent $70,000. "It looks OK now, but it's not what we had. I just want what we had. It was a place we truly loved, and it's not the same now."
Samson is hoping the new state assistance program will provide the funds they need, though she admits she's overwhelmed trying to compile the paperwork, care for her husband and keep up with her part-time nursing job at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville. Still, she's persevering, looking forward to a meeting with the counselors at the Groton intake center.
"We have an appointment in January," Samson said.
Elsewhere in East Lyme, a few others are still making Sandy repairs, said Joe Smith, chief building official for the town. And two houses are, like the Barrett house, being lifted to prevent damage from future storm surges.
"FEMA is hoping to get people to the point where they don't have losses again," he said.
In the Lord's Point section of Stonington, at least two homeowners are in the planning stages of projects to raise their homes about 7 feet, said Wayne Greene, the town's building official.
"Sandy was a wake-up call," he said. "It's good to see this. There's no sense spending money repairing your house if it's going to get wiped away again."
To reach the state Department of Housing's Storm Sandy intake center, call (866) 272-1976.