One Year After Sandy, A Community Recovers

A year ago tomorrow, Sandy tore through Westport with raging winds and historic seawater surges. William Adler, a Staples grad and longtime communications professional (UPI, The New York Times, Reader’s Digest), and his wife Olga had moved to Saugatuck Island 3 months earlier. Like many neighbors — and those on Compo Beach and Old Mill — their house was devastated.  William wrote this piece, exclusively for “06880.”

On Monday, October 29, 2012 Storm Sandy tore through town, bringing raging winds and historic seawater surges. Across Westport, 243 homes were substantially damaged. Many were rendered uninhabitable, pending repairs.

Saugatuck Island sits at the mouth of the Saugatuck River. Its 100 or so houses range from 1950s ranches to oceanfront mansions.  A giant wall of water gushed down the narrow streets, smashing through ground-floor windows and doors, depositing as much as 6 feet of water inside.

A small part of the great damage on Saugatuck Shores. (Photos/Inklings staff)

A small part of the great damage on Saugatuck Shores. (Photos/Inklings staff)

Two days later, many residents gingerly returned along Harbor Road on foot. The roadway had buckled as if in an earthquake. The only approach to the island was by cutting through yards.

Some houses were smashed or knocked off their foundations. Seawalls were toppled, their giant boulders tossed about like pebbles. The bridge onto the island was knocked off its moorings. Near the bridge, a sailboat had crashed through a living room window. Drowned rabbits were in driveways, and a dead shark sat on someone’s front stoop.

Damage inside William and Olga Adler's house was typical across Saugatuck Island. (Photo/William Adler)

Damage inside William and Olga Adler’s house was typical across Saugatuck Island. (Photo/William Adler)

Once residents made it home, the sight was just as heartbreaking. Most houses that had not been built or converted to FEMA flood elevation standards sustained water damage. Sea water destroys just about anything it touches: kitchen cabinets and appliances, furniture, floor surfaces – you name it.

Seawater had mixed with septic systems and other toxic sources. And because water surged from all sides it swirled inside houses, causing a tornado-like effect that amplified damage. Many families turned around and headed back to hotels to regroup.

In the weeks that followed, residents took stock. They were thankful to be safe. Help arrived from the Red Cross, FEMA, the Small Business Administration and, especially, the Town of Westport, which counseled victims on the daunting task of filing claims and helped streamline the process of variances for repairs.

Along the way, something wonderful happened. Island residents returned to rebuild. They created informal networks to share information and moral support.  A “stronger than the storm” determination spread widely.  It appears not a single Saugatuck Island family has left specifically because of the storm ordeal.

“The support on the island has been overwhelming,” said Larysa Chernik, who with husband Ihor had just moved from Wilton when Sandy struck. “We are lucky to have our own network of insiders on the island who provide ideas on colors, designs, vendors and anything else. We are sharing and learning from one another. For weeks we commiserated together, shared helpers and names of service providers, not to mention the coffee and donuts. We all lost so very much.”

The cost of staying is steep. Damage to homes on the island is estimated at $2-4 million. At minimum, flooded households had to hire expensive industrial-strength cleaning. Many needed  sheetrock removed, floors torn up.

An Island Way home in mid-elevation. The 1st floor was stripped back to studs, before being placed on a new, higher foundation. (Photo/William Adler)

An Island Way home in mid-elevation. The 1st floor was stripped back to studs, before being placed on a new, higher foundation. (Photo/William Adler)

Some residents elected to elevate – raising the foundation to meet FEMA storm requirements. As the house is lifted by jacks and gently placed on new, higher, moorings, substantial work must be done on every system in the house.  The State of Connecticut estimates that such projects cost $10,000 per linear foot. That works out to $150,000 to $300,000 — or much higher.

Most of the cost is not reimbursed by flood insurance, which mainly covers damage to the original structure. The process can take up to a year.

“We are trying to build smart and safe, so we went high,” Larysa said.“When we are done, we will exceed current base flood elevation by 3 feet. We hope to be more energy efficient. We found an architect who shared our vision and helped us figure out how to put back together our simple home. Neighbors stood with us and cheered as the house went up, and later as it came back down on its new foundation.”

The town has been enormously supportive of flood victims, holding seminars on FEMA and elevation procedures and providing an information phone line staffed by Michele Onofrio at the Westport Fire Department.  

The reconstructed seawall on Saugatuck Shores. (Photo/William Adler)

The reconstructed — and bigger and stronger — seawall on Saugatuck Shores. (Photo/William Adler)

By summer, things were looking up. The island’s association had completed repairs to the bridge, seawalls and roads. Amazingly, the main beach actually looked nicer, thanks to thousands of pounds of powdery sand deposited by the storm. Seawalls were bulldozed back into place, bigger and stronger.

Tony and Penny Sousa, longtime residents, organized a sprawling summer beach party for their neighbors that galvanized everyone’s determination to recover. Among those celebrating was Lisa Hartmann, another longtime resident, who said it is part of the character of people who live by the ocean to hang in through adversity.

Tony and Penny Sousa, celebration organizers. (Photo/William Adler)

Tony and Penny Sousa, celebration organizers. (Photo/William Adler)

“Most people who come to Saugatuck Island – either to live, vacation, join friends for a celebration or pass time — love it,” she said. “Many have been here a long time. They will say that living by the water is a kind of therapy.  Life is a state of mind.  Where else would they go?”

Lisa — a realtor — reports that in addition to all the houses that have been repaired, 7 new constructions are under way. Another is due to start shortly.

“It has been difficult for many people, but knowing that they have made it through is an accomplishment in itself,” Lisa said. “I believe every home was impacted financially in some way or another. You can replace things, but you cannot replace relationships that have been made because of Sandy. Our family is very happy in Saugatuck, and I just say be patient – all this will be a distant memory.  The island is just getting better.”

The island association oversaw the cleanup and repair of the bridge and other infrastructure, which cost residents about $100,000. Carole Reichhelm, the association president and a resident for nearly 40 years, said the island is now better prepared to handle future storm emergencies.

“Our board came on strong and worked together quickly to get our cleanup under way. Although our bridge floated off its foundation we had it back in place in less than 2 weeks. We learned vital information about its structure and how we can protect ourselves better. Our experience with FEMA was very positive.”

This Island Way home was in mid-elevation, with the 1st floor stripped back to studs, before being placed on a new, higher foundation.  (Photo/William Adler)

This house, on the beach at Saugatuck Island, is being elevated above FEMA requirements. (Photo/William Adler)

Carole added that she can’t remember a time when community spirit was stronger.  “In many ways, the storm brought our neighbors closer together – personally, I know more people on the island than I ever have before. We are a strong, vibrant, pretty old-fashioned neighborhood with kids on bikes, lemonade stands in summer, July 4th barbecues, paddle boarders, kayakers, sailors and a lot of people enjoying the spectacular views. If Sandy was our sacrifice for choosing to live in this place, I’d do it all over again without a second thought.”

Still, as Layrsa and Ihor prepare to finally move home, she said, “Living as a displaced person for a year is a humbling experience. You appreciate every act kindness, no matter how small. We are privileged to live in a unique community.

“The holiday caroling party has been organized, and discussions are under way for starting a movie club. The walks with our dogs continue. Everything has changed this year, except for the people we call friends and neighbors. We hope for many more safe and happy years.”

In the past year, the Adlers have elevated their home. Olga — an interior decorator — is in the process of creating “the ultimate beach house,” with energy-efficient features, solar power, a home automation system and car elevator.

Sandy deposited tons of shells along Saugatuck Island beaches, but somehow this brave little sunflower took root in the sand last summer.  (Photo/William Adler)

Sandy deposited tons of shells along Saugatuck Island beaches, but somehow this brave little sunflower took root in the sand last summer. (Photo/William Adler)

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