The calls went out late Friday afternoon, traditionally the best time to dump bad news: The state of Connecticut will not use federal funds to help homeowners raise their homes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Those “hazard mitigation grant” funds will apparently go only to municipal projects, like a proposal in Westport to replace the Saugatuck Island bridge.
The calls — made by Westport Fire Chief and emergency management director Andrew Kingsbury and his assistant — caused anger, despair and confusion. Approximately 30 Westport homeowners had been led to expect (by FEMA, at information sessions) that they would receive up to 70% reimbursement for the cost of raising their waterfront structures. Flood insurance does not cover that expense.
It is not clear who made the decision: FEMA or Connecticut officials. Approximately $55 million in funds are available for the state’s portion of the “hazard mitigation grant” program.
Rick Benson — a residential developer who recently built a 100%-compliant house on Saugatuck Shores, completely renovated another, and helped 8 homeowners prepare the time-consuming, complicated grant applications — estimates the “cheapest” price for raising a home in a flood-prone area is $175,000. Benson’s 8 projects range from $200,000 to $325,000. Another local proposal he heard of would cost $450,000.
“The government told homeowners they had to raise their houses, or they’d face much higher flood insurance rates,” Benson says. “But now they won’t help them out with these very expensive projects of raising them.”
One Saugatuck Shores resident calls FEMA’s projected flood insurance increases “astronomical.” He heard that a $2,500 annual policy could skyrocket to $25,000.
Tony Sousa — a 14-year resident of Saugatuck Island — has already spent $15,000 preparing his application. He’s paid for surveyors, architectural drawings and soil samples. His neighbors have paid similar amounts.
The 25 to 30 projects here are now in limbo. For his potential customers, Benson has already submitted comprehensive architectural plans and budgets. He advised them to spend this past weekend absorbing the news. Their next step is to decide whether to get the decision reversed, or proceed using all their own funds.
Sousa and his wife Penny are among those facing a very tough decision.
“Do we move? Take all our savings and put it into raising our house? Or do we live with the risk?” he asks. “There are not a lot of great options.”
Benson estimates that 10 to 12 homes on Compo Cove, plus another 20 or so at Compo Beach and on Saugatuck Shores, have already been lifted at homeowners’ full expense. He calls the real estate market on Saugatuck Island “soft,” noting that the only homes that seem to be selling are those already raised.
Homeowners affected by Sandy are not the only ones in FEMA limbo. According to Benson, every Westport house-lifting project proposed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene — 14 months before Sandy — still remains unfunded.