On beach battered by Sandy, HUD secretary takes cautious bow, promises more help

Milford – Two things are certain when men in suits stand on a beach in August at a plexiglass lectern, look at TV news cameras across a red velvet rope line and talk about how well government has responded to a devastating hurricane.

One, they will draw the curious off freshly rebuilt decks and out of the water, especially if the men in suits are senior government officials from Hartford and Washington speaking over a sound system that carries their voices down the beach.

And two, someone less formally attired inevitably will step forward, point to still ruined homes and offer a heartfelt, if unamplified, rebuttal by suggesting that things still need to move faster.

On Monday afternoon, the men in suits on Silver Sands beach were U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes and Mayor Ben Blake. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was there in khakis, minus tie and jacket.

Within sight of the ruined and the rebuilt, as the rising tide crept ever closer, Donovan came to publicize the Obama administration’s rapid response to Hurricane Sandy, while acknowledging much work remains. The rebuttal came from a retiree, Lehmann K. Li, and his wife, Susana.

Donovan talked about the 17,000 federal responders on the ground within a week, far faster than for Katrina. He talked about $50 billion in federal relief, including nearly $72 million just approved for Connecticut. He made a dig at Republicans.

“As you all remember, it wasn’t easy to get a Sandy relief bill through Congress,” said Donovan, a New Yorker who was Mayor Bloomberg’s director of housing preservation and development before joining the Obama administration.

Overall, the tone was upbeat.

“We all know there is much more work to be done, but it’s also important as we gather here today, sun peeking out, kids playing on the beach, to recognize how far we’ve come,” Donovan said.

Donovan said 97 percent of the beaches chewed up by Sandy are open, from Cape May, N.J., to the Cape Cod National Seashore. Malloy said Connecticut’s beaches set attendance records on the Fourth of July.

They stood just outside the boundaries of Silver Sands State Park, where a long wooden walkway provided access from a free public parking lot to a sandy beach.

A good football toss down the beach behind Donovan, a tanned teenage boy in baggy surfer shorts chased a tanned teenage girl in a purple and white bikini. Their friends laughed. A mom in a sand chair looked up from her book.

The stagecraft was efficient, if a tad surreal.

HUD staff had cleared a narrow swath of sand, set up a sound system capable of powering a small concert and plopped down a plexiglass lectern that could have been plucked from a TV game show.

The final touch was lengths of red velvet rope, strung between five shiny metal stanchions. As the press conference began, water lapped at the base of one of the two portable speaker supports.

Malloy and Himes periodically glanced at the advancing tide. When it was time for questions, the governor pointed to the water and suggested the press be quick.

The backdrop was a house newly raised on 12-foot cement piers. Without stairs or any other finished work, the home had a few comic touches: A mailbox, once at street level, dangled in the air beyond the reach of a leaping NBA center.

If the cameras were turned around 180 degrees, the view was a tiny green house stuck in the purgatory between ruined and repaired. It used to belong to Lehmann and Susana Li, who retired to a home across the street 20 years ago.

Their home survived. A rental property that provides retirement income did not. The fate of the tiny green house, now the property of a nephew, was uncertain.

The couple stood behind the velvet rope, watching and listening.

The insurance company told their nephew the house can be salvaged. A contractor said it is a total loss, its buckled walls not strong enough to survive being raised on piers.

Lehmann Li said their rental property, because it was judged a 50 percent loss, must be raised on piers a job they expect to cost $60,000. Even with insurance, they said, they can’t make the numbers work.

In the meantime, they still have to pay $12,000 in property taxes on an investment property that is 50 percent ruined and 100 percent empty.

Malloy said he expects more HUD money is coming, and some of it will be available under the right circumstances to finance raising houses above the reach of the next big storm.

Details on storm aid eventually will be available at the state’s new online portal, “CTrecovers,” but the best the web site could offer Monday to those seeking aid was, “Check back soon, applications will be posted here.”

The Lis approached the mayor after Donovan, Malloy, Blumenthal and Himes departed the beach for the next stop, a storm-damaged public housing project in Norwalk.

Lehmann Li held his thumb and index finger an inch apart and complained about the stack of paperwork.

“Hey, we’re retired,” he said.

Blake listened. Bill Richards, a former firefighter who now is the deputy director of emergency management, leaned in. Richards knew the couple from his outeach work in the harried, frustrating 10 months since Sandy.

“What I suggest is we have caseworkers who are going to help you out,” Blake said. “It’s going to be a long and arduous process, and if you don’t want to be involved in it, it’s going to be frustrating, but at least they’ll give you some assistance.”

“Give me a call,” said Richards, a self-described “beach kid,” one of the legions from blue-collar families lucky enough to live in an affordable town with the longest coast line in the state. “You know me, I’m Bill.”

Many of the grown-up beach kids have tough choices to make. The rows of simple, one-story houses – some seasonal, some converted to year-round – are vulnerable to rising seas.

Richards produced a business card. So did the mayor.

Lehmann and Susan Li nodded. They thanked the mayor, but they still seemed intimidated by the process of getting aid.

“I’ll set up a meeting,” Richards said. “The next time, I’ll go with you.”

Blake did not leave until the couple had no more questions, at least for now.

He was asked how often he has those conversations.

An aide laughed and interjected, “Every day?”

“Everywhere I go,” the mayor said. “Lots of frustration.”

As he left, two workers slipped off their shoes, waded into the water and retrieved the speaker stand.

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