In Norwich, signs of flood still evident

Norwich - Workers at the Nutmeg Companies cleared the work yard of loose equipment and supplies earlier this month when weather forecasters placed Connecticut on a flood watch.

Just in case.

Owners Jason and Diana Bugbee and Evert and Lisa Gawendo learned one year ago today that the power of the Yantic River is beyond anyone's means to control. It was a $3.5 million lesson, and constant reminders remain.

Rusted nuts and bolts still sit in warped cardboard boxes in the rear warehouse. Very fine, dried river sediment still drifts to the floor from shelves. The once-paved parking lot is a gravely mess.

The company is still arguing with the insurer that carries its flood coverage through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's national flood insurance program. Jason Bugbee estimated his company and the insurer are about $200,000 to $300,000 apart on flood-damage claims.

Last March 29 and 30, Nutmeg workers, friends and neighbors desperately filled sandbags to place along the banks of the neighboring Yantic River. They used backhoes to place huge concrete blocks to form a flood wall.

Inside the company headquarters, other workers lifted computers and moved filing cabinet drawers to higher shelves.

By late afternoon on March 30, the flood wall was done and the workers started to relax. But part of that wall included the garage at the rear of the property, and when the water pressure built up, the garage fell with a crash. The few who were still in the work yard raced to escape the wall of water that suddenly flooded the entire property.

Water and mud seeped into every crevice, rising to about four feet in the office complex. A heavy conference table that normally took several strong men to move floated in the deluge. In the bathrooms, sewage water gushed out of the toilet from the overwhelmed septic system, adding to the misery.

Although the construction company had to temporarily lay off six of its approximately 45 workers, the company rented temporary trailers and kept working at its many job sites.

"It was pretty bleak in April last year," President Diana Bugbee said. "You have to maintain a bright face because you have to let people know you're still in business."

Their own building became one of their projects. Bugbee said they had to cut everything out of the interior from four feet high on down, removing drywall, carpeting, all furniture, electrical fixtures and flooring.

They met their goal of getting out of the temporary trailers by winter.

The hallways still have the original floors, but upturned corners and cracks show the damage. Those will have to be replaced soon. For the most part, the newly renovated office complex shows just a few signs of the flood.

For the quick turnaround, Nutmeg's owners thank their Norwich neighbors and friends. The owner of Surplus Unlimited's office supply division told Nutmeg to take whatever the company needed at greatly discounted prices. The next-door Benny's store offered its parking lot. The former owners of the complex at 31 New London Turnpike, Steve and Linda Becker, brought a tray of sandwiches and other food during the cleanup.

"They knew," Diana Bugbee said. "They were here in 1982."

In that June 6, 1982, flood, the "frantic Yantic" rose even higher - 14.9 feet - than the 13.2-foot official height of the 2010 flood.

As they rebuild and continue to sweep away the fine sand, the Gawendos and Bugbees also are looking to relocate. The city has applied for a federal grant that would purchase the property and level the buildings, preserving the land as natural open space - and a safe floodway if necessary.

"The issue is, where do we go?" Jason Bugbee said. "We've been looking around a lot. The city has been very proactive. We know they want us to stay in Norwich."

c.bessette@theday.com

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