Groton - Its giant clenched fist crammed with torn strips of siding, insulation, plywood and carpeting, the excavator arm swung another chunk of what had been Peter and Lorraine Grader's home of 27 years into a large dumpster Monday morning.
"It's a very funny feeling, to say that we're tearing our house down," said Peter Grader, who watched the demolition for about half an hour. The crew from R. Champlin Crane & Excavating of Westerly arrived at about 8, and would finish up by the end of the day, owner and excavator operator Richard Champlin said. Maneuvering on the Graders' small lot, surrounded by houses on two sides, utility wires on another, and waterfront on the fourth, required a delicate touch with the hulking machine.
"The wires and the houses are really close, and with the ice on the ground, the machine doesn't want to stay in one place," said Champlin, between shifting controls to grab and crunch another jumbled clawful of house remnants.
For the first 25 years they lived there, the Graders said, their 1,372-square-foot, two-story, two-bedroom home, built in 1940, had been perfect. An older, active couple who still work at their family business, Grader Jewelers, they loved the waterfront location on the cozy peninsula called Jupiter Point.
"We love this house the way it is," said Lorraine Grader before the demolition as she took a break from packing for their move to a nearby apartment. She looked out the front picture windows to a flock of geese swimming among sailboats moored around the Pine Island Marina. Decks on both levels afforded views to Baker Cove, Long Island Sound and the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus, where a new institute to help shoreline property owners like the Graders is being created.
"It's a nice coincidence," Lorraine Grader said of the recent announcement about the Institute for Community Resiliency and Climate Adaptation.
After floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 swamped the main floor of the house, the Graders decided that just making repairs wasn't enough. They wanted to stay on their narrow slice of waterfront, but realized there was no way to make their existing home both more storm resilient and practical as they age. Raising the house on stilts, as some shoreline property owners have done, wasn't possible because of its design, nor would adding the elevator that Peter Grader, 80, figured he would need in the future.
"We know it floods around here, so whenever a storm's going to come, we elevate the piano and the furniture," said Lorraine Grader. "But how much longer can we do that?"
That conundrum led them to decide, on the advice of their contractor, to raze the house and replace it with a modular home of roughly the same size, but one story taller. Main living areas will be on the second and third floor, while the ground level will be a garage built to allow incoming storm tides to pass through. Federal Emergency Management Agency storm relief funds are helping with some of the costs, but paying for most of the expenses of the demolition and the replacement home is requiring they dip into their life savings, the couple said.
"It's a quality of life thing," said Lorraine Grader. "Staying here means something to us. And, after the house had gone through these storms, how could we sell it?"
Carl Smith, building and zoning official for the City of Groton, said Jupiter Point is one of the community's most flood-prone neighborhoods as sea levels rise and storms intensify with climate change.
"It's all about the tide levels when the storms hit. It's the surge that hurts," he said.
Owners of two other houses on Jupiter Point, he noted, are also taking what a few years ago would have seemed like radical actions, but now seem sensible after repeated damage from Irene and Sandy.
"One other house there is going to be torn down and replaced, and another will be put on a foundation and raised up," Smith said.
Syma Ebbin and her husband, Michael Kane, contractor for the Graders, built their current home, at the highest spot on Jupiter Point, in 1999. Ebbin spent summers there as a child, and said she has noticed gradual effects from rising sea levels. A neighborhood beach at the tip of the point, for example, is now almost completely under water at high tide.
"The coastal area is changing, and our understanding of it is also changing," said Ebbin, who is associate professor in residence of agriculture and resource economics at Avery Point and research coordinator at Connecticut Sea Grant, also at the UConn campus. "Sea level rise is incremental, but it's the enhanced intensity of these storms coupled with sea level rise that eventually may make it untenable to live in these areas."
Instead of building more sea walls to turn coastal communities into "fortresses," Ebbin said, communities should look to become more resilient by raising homes and building "living shorelines" with offshore oyster beds, preserved marshlands and other natural breakwaters to absorb floodwaters and soften the wave energy of storms.
All along the Connecticut shoreline, homes are being razed and replaced or elevated, said Brian Thompson, director of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's Office of Long Island Sound Programs and a member of the committee organizing the new institute at Avery Point.
"People are choosing to do it or being forced to do it," he said. "It's something that's happening commonly."
In many cases, he said, replacing an existing home makes more sense than raising it up on stilts.
"There are a lot of improvements that can be built into a new home to make it more resilient," he said.
One of the charges of the new institute will be to help educate shoreline property owners about the increasing risks and various solutions they should consider adapting, Thompson said.
The Graders, though, have made their choice. By the end of this week crews will begin driving pilings and laying the concrete footings for the new house. The modular home, being built in Pennsylvania, will arrive in four sections. The couple hope to be in their new home by late April or early May, in time to enjoy another spring and summer on the waterfront.
"I'm looking forward to having something nice and new, that will be able to stand up to the storms," said Peter Grader.