West Haven - The humor displayed by the crowd gathered in the basement of City Hall was clearly of the black variety.
“I had fish in my yard,” said one homeowner, describing what flooding from Storm Sandy did to her home a year earlier.
“Shrimp, fish; we had a party,” another half-joked.
They and more than two dozen other homeowners were there on an evening in late August to learn what it might take for the federal government to buy their homes, demolish them and turn the properties back to nature. The measure would ensure that storms like Irene and Sandy could never again upend lives in their neighborhood along Old Field Creek, not far from where it empties into Long Island Sound.
“Like before the Pilgrims arrived,” is how Arthur “Arde” Ramthun described what their properties would eventually look like. He runs the buyout program in Connecticut for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an environmental arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The NRCS program -- officially called the Emergency Watershed Protection Program - Floodplain Easement -- creates an easement. A similar program from the Federal Emergency Management Agency focuses on hazard mitigation. Call it what you want -– acquisitions, buybacks, buyouts, mitigation or easements -– the effect is the same: strategic retreat from the shoreline. The government pays people to give up their flood-prone property.
After two years of tropical-style storms in Connecticut and the Northeast, the idea that parts of the coast are no longer suitable for habitable structures is gaining traction with federal and state officials facing repetitive rounds of expenses to help shoreline property owners recover.
But it’s a touchy concept. Shoreline towns pull in hefty tax payments from waterside and water view properties. Homeowners in love with living on the shore don't want to give that up. And even with increasing flood insurance premiums and requirements threatening to price out shoreline homeowners, buyout programs in Connecticut are getting few takers.
That was apparent as deadlines for two programs came and went on Sept. 2. Despite hundreds, if not thousands, of badly damaged Connecticut homes now at greater and more frequent flood risk from sea level rise and the potential for more climate change-induced violent storms, FEMA’s buyout program for houses damaged by Irene had only seven applicants. And only two were actually on the shoreline -– in Milford. The rest were on inland waterways in Plainville and Bristol.
The NRCS program for victims of Sandy had about 30 applications -– four from Milford, five municipally owned buildings from a city the NRCS refused to name, and the remaining approximately 20 (neither NRCS nor the city would disclose the exact number) from the Old Field Creek neighborhood. It would turn the area back into the floodplain it was before the city allowed parts of it to be filled in and homes built.
“I’m hearing people say from ‘I can’t wait to get out of here,’ to ‘over my dead body, they’ll have to drag me out,’” said Ruth Garby Torres, a retired Connecticut state trooper who has lived near the creek for 29 years, though outside the flood area. As part of the West Haven Watershed Restoration Committee, she has been going door-to-door, helping her neighbors get information about the buyout programs. Some of those neighbors, she said, now have anxiety attacks every time it rains or the wind blows.
“Part of it I think is a little bit of denial,” she said of some people’s reluctance to consider giving up their homes. “They don’t want to believe that they have to get out. They don’t want to believe that this is the only option.”
Sharie Roy believes it. “I can’t stay here anymore,” she said of the tiny box of a house she’s owned for 11 years. A short walk from the beach, it backs onto the wetland floodplain edges of the creek. Wild turkeys strut undeterred through her and her neighbors’ yards.
Roy was flooded in Irene and again in Sandy, the water just missing her first floor. She points, at times tearfully, to where she once had well-tended and elaborate gardens. “You see this big hibiscus? I had five of those here. That’s the only one that made it,” she said. And then refocusing on a row of shrub stumps: “These I had to saw down by hand.
“I feel like my house is slowly becoming a wetland,” she said. “If I can get this NRCS grant I’ve got to go. I’ve got to kind of take the loss and hope I get offered enough to pay the outstanding mortgage. I’m really in a rock and a hard place.” She laughs the kind of nervous laugh of someone resigned to misfortune.
Karen D’Addio, Roy's neighbor, and her husband have owned their home for 33 years. It also flooded twice, leaving them with bills of $30,000 after insurance paid its part.
“I really don’t see where we can financially absorb the cost of another storm, let alone the depression that it causes,” D’Addio said. But, she said, her investment is essentially gone. “Once I pay off my mortgage, how much money am I really going to have?”
But other homeowners, like Salvatore Giannotti and his neighbor Neil Cappetta, decided not to apply for any buyout. “We don’t want to sell. We don’t want to move,” said Giannotti, who had water 2 feet up his foundation from Sandy, while Cappetta had 4 feet of water in his basement in both storms. “Where are we gonna go? We like where we live.”
Giannotti said of the idea of returning the neighborhood to its former wetland state: “That ship has sailed. Those mistakes are made, and realistically I don’t think it’s going to be undone.”
Fierce competition for funds
And the odds that West Haven will get any money are slim.
The NRCS easement program has a pool of $124.8 million for homes damaged by Sandy in 12 states, including the hardest hit -- New York and New Jersey. The expectation is that the competition for what is a relatively small amount of funding will be fierce.
“Staten Island could eat up all of it,” Ramthun said after the West Haven meeting, where he conceded to the crowd that “it won’t be ideal” if not everyone in the Old Field Creek neighborhood decides to sell.
On the plus side, the program will pay up to 100 percent of a home’s appraised value based on its condition the day before Sandy. But homeowners complain they will wind up shortchanged since most homes still had not recovered from Irene.
The FEMA hazard mitigation program has a per-state allotment. In Connecticut it’s $8.7 million for Irene and $8.9 million for Sandy. (The Sandy application deadline is Nov. 22, and West Haven is expected to apply for that if NRCS funding falls through.) But the FEMA program is just for hazard mitigation, including things like generators for critical structures, large drainage projects and elevating homes, as well as buyouts. If a house was completely destroyed, the remaining property is not eligible.
It also only pays 75 percent of the project value. The Connecticut legislature did authorize two sets of $2 million in bond money to cover the remaining 25 percent for acquisitions. One is through the Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, the other through the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, but only the emergency management funding has been activated.
DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty has noted repeatedly that he would like the state to establish a coastal buyout fund. “I think it would be a good value to the state to get ahold of some of these coastal properties and increase the buffer that we provide between the ocean and the rest of our communities,” he said. “The key issue, as always, is money, and we face a serious question as to whether there would be resources available.”
Even if there were, New York’s recent effort may stand as a warning. It has had barely 4 percent of the expected 10,000 takers for a $400 million buyout fund established by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Part of the issue in Connecticut may be that in both the NRCS and FEMA programs, homeowners must have sponsors -– usually their municipality. And that can pose a problem, if not a downright conflict-of-interest, for chief executives who are balancing responsibility to their residents with emergency management and their tax base.
“The official position of the city is we are not enthusiastic about buyouts,” said Tom Ivers, acting director of the community and economic development office in Milford, a city that suffered damage to some 1,000 homes in Sandy. “It erodes the tax base.”
But in West Haven, Mayor John Picard sees buyouts as a two-sided coin. “I would argue that we lose some revenue, but you would lose some expenses also,” he said. Picard estimated that the city had to pick up $2 million of a total $8 million tab for Irene and Sandy. He estimated the tax loss from buyouts at Old Field Creek at $100,000 or less annually. “I’m on a $150 million budget,” he said. “There is an impact, but I would say it’s minor.”
Emily Pysh, who is the state’s hazard mitigation officer and handles the mitigation applications, including buyouts, for FEMA’s program, said that even without the financial consideration: “It’s a big decision for these communities to make. You’re effectively changing the look and feel of your community.”
The question, she said, is: “What do you want your community to look like? What do you envision? Not just next year, but for decades down the road.”
In the meantime, for the homeowners who do want buyouts, it’s an emotionally wrenching wait until Nov. 15 for word on whether they’ll get one.
For Sharie Roy, she said it helps to know that some wealthy person who could afford to rebuild over and over would not be snatching her property. “This whole area should have been left natural, it really should have,” she said. “It does make a big difference to me to know that when they demo this house, no one will ever build on it again, and it will go back to nature.”
For Karen D’Addio: “I walk around my house every single day. I cry a little every single day because, you know, my house is a dead house, a dead house,” she said. “It’s awful. It’s absolutely terrible.”