Disaster recovery and resiliency in Connecticut
NOVEMBER 9, 2015
THE MILFORD MIRROR.
Debby Dinan is finally back home three years after Superstorm Sandy hit, but she says there are still a lot of people working through the process to rebuild from the storm.
It’s been three years since Superstorm Sandy sent Debby Dinan out of her Orland Street home, leaving a wet ruin behind. But finally, she is back home. She says it took constant oversight of her paperwork, determination, insurance and government funding — plus a group of women she calls angels.
Those women gathered last week at Dinan’s home, now elevated on pillars about 12 feet in the air and keeping her safe from any more rising tides.
They include Sandi Cole, program director for Catholic Charities, Susan Shaw of United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Erica Bento, of Catholic Charities, who was Dinan’s case worker through the long and arduous process of getting back home.
“I couldn’t have done it without them,” Dinan said.
Tom Ivers was there, too. Ivers is Milford’s former community development block grant coordinator who connected Dinan with Bento and the others who would help her navigate the lengthy process to secure permits and funding to restore her house.
“This is a long process,” said Shaw, explaining that Sandy was the second costliest hurricane to hit the United States since Katrina 10 years ago, and people hit by Katrina aren’t done rebuilding yet.
Cole added that since Connecticut had not suffered this kind of mass destruction from a storm, there were policies and programs that had to be put into place before assistance could reach people.
A financial puzzle
Putting the financial pieces together and going through the often complicated process of rebuilding after a storm like Sandy is by no means a quick process, said Shaw, a disaster recovery specialist who works for the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, partnering with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
Some people had flood insurance to cover costs associated with storm repair and remediation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided other money through a block grant program and hazard mitigation funds, and there are loans and community-donated money available to help people get back home.
But to wade through the available funds and figure out how to get them is work.
“Trying to navigate to rebuild is a full-time job, and if you have a full time job …” Shaw said.
In addition to providing extra needed dollars to fix homes — filling the gap between available funds and the actual costs — the representatives of these volunteer-based groups like CTRises, UMCOR, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities help people navigate the process.
Getting back home
Dinan is among the first string of people who relied on assistance to rebuild their homes to actually see the work complete.
Debby Dinan still has a lot of unpacking to do shortly after moving back into her Orland Street home.
“She was very much advocating for herself,” Cole said.
When Sandy sent water rushing into Dinan’s house three years ago, it left everything wet from the ground up, Dinan said. The water came up to her windows.
She initially rented from a friend after the storm, but then moved two more times — three times in two years.
A cancer survivor who faced other medical issues as she scoured paperwork and met with builders, she said there were times she almost gave up.
“It was really hard emotionally,” Dinan said. “I had to stay on top of my paperwork every day.”
She used insurance money, FEMA’s Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC) funds and Community Development Block Grant — Disaster Recovery funds to pay for elevating her home and then restoring it.
The agencies that Shaw, Cole and Bento represent provided funds to help pay her rent while she was also paying her mortgage — FEMA’s rental assistance ran out after 18 months — and they helped her find funds to replace the appliances and other things inside her home that would turn it back into a real home again.
They also provided a lot of emotional support.
The process is complicated for homeowners, Cole said, explaining that securing funding can hinge on details, such as how many times a person’s mortgage has changed hands since their initial purchase. People who go through this kind of disaster often suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, she added.
“It takes a case manager who knows how to put the pieces together,” Cole said.
“It’s like a puzzle,” Bento added.
Still, many aren’t home yet. It’s hard to say how many Milford shoreline residents are not back home yet. Ivers said that Sandy left 500 to 600 homes along the shoreline here substantially damaged. There are so many different scenarios: There are those who used their own funds, thus avoiding the more stringent rebuild guidelines associated with government grants and loans. There are those who just walked away from their homes and don’t plan to return. There are those still working through the process of securing the funds and permits to rebuild and move back home.
Mayor Ben Blake said Milford was one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy, accounting for 25% of Connecticut’s flood insurance claims. The majority of the people who are back home got there without government aid, tapping into their own insurance, savings and other means to rebuild. “The grants take a lot longer, so the majority did it without grants,” Blake said.
Shaw said 76 Milford homeowners are under case management now, meaning they are working with a representative in the long-term recovery process to piece together their house rebuild puzzle. Of those, 32 who have been accepted to receive CDBG-DR funding are still waiting for funding.
Milford Economic Development Director Julie Nash said there are two primary funding sources being funnelled through her city office: the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which is the FEMA hazard mitigation program that pays only for house elevation, and the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program run by the Department of Housing that will supply funds for elevation and reconstruction.
Some homeowners combine the programs, but all depends on the circumstances. The CDBG-DR program is for people of low to moderate income.
Five property owners have seen their property elevated through the CDBG-DR program and are waiting for FEMA’s final sign-off. Those five account for about a half-million dollars in CDBG-DR funds, Nash said. Some of those five are living in the home and some are still renting until the work is completely done.
Milford’s community development office is working with another 17 homeowners who are at various stages of the grant process.
Recovery is still a big part of Nash’s job. When she started two years ago, 80% of her workday was directed at recovery. Today it consumes more than 50% of her job.
“It’s a lot of work, and it takes a team,” she said.
Groups like UMCOR, Catholic Charities and the others have been invaluable in the process, Nash added.
“They have been so helpful,” Nash said. “I can’t find the words.”
Charitable funds running low
As time moves on and recovery continues, groups like Catholic Charities, UMCOR and the Red Cross are running out of money. Shaw said they are working with state legislators to find more funding as more people and more cases come into their caseloads daily.
“We all have about the same amount left,” Cole said, “and we’re all working on getting more money, trying to get the state to see what’s going on.”
“You can’t take water from a dry well, and that’s where we’re headed,” she added.
(In addition to the support she got from people in the community, Debby Dinan said her painting helped calm her during stressful times that followed Superstorm Sandy.)
In addition to the support she got from people in the community, Debby Dinan paints, and painting helped calm her during stressful times that followed Superstorm Sandy.
Dinan worries for those people still struggling through the post-Sandy process. She thanks a lot of people for helping her get back home, including her builder, Ken Esposito. As she stands in her elevated home, clean, new and mostly white, with boxes and boxes still left to be unpacked, she says she loves her new home, and she feels safe. But she cautions that there are still many people who need help getting back home.
There are “easily” 120 homeowners in Milford still involved in the recovery process,” Shaw said during an interview in March, adding, “We know there are people who don’t even know there’s help available.”
People are still coming to the Red Cross building in Milford, where the disaster recovery caseworkers are housed, and they include those who tried to handle the projects themselves but couldn’t, and senior citizens who are often the least likely to ask for help.
People still in need of help for Superstorm Sandy repairs may call 2-1-1.