Bridgeport — On Tuesday, Oct. 30 — the height of Superstorm Sandy, when most others had been advised to stay in their houses or in shelters — Nick Calace drove to Marina Village.
The Bridgeport Housing Authority director wanted to assess the damage to the public housing complex, which lies just east of Burr Creek Inlet and north of Long Island Sound. Calace drove as far as he could, then parked and walked to lower ground.
“I saw the tips of the fences,” he said, while driving by the site a month later, pointing out the shabby metal barriers in front of each of the little apartment units. “That’s all I saw here, were the tips of these 3-foot fences.” Everything below that point was underwater, he said.
Residents of Marina Village, along with those in other public housing complexes and low-income housing areas near the coast in Connecticut’s most populous city, continue to struggle to return to normal life after Sandy.
Forced to trash much of their property due to heavy flooding, they are now at the mercy of their landlords and insurance companies. And since many have nowhere else to go, they wonder if they’ll be subject to the same ordeal year after year.
“They’re suffering in two ways: The loss of their property, and the fear that this thing is just going to keep happening over and over again, and they’ll never recover,” said Bill Finch, Bridgeport’s mayor.
Rebuilding a public housing complex
Part of Marina Village lies on a “100-year” floodplain, but that number has little meaning for its residents now. Buildings 28 and 29 of the complex have been flooded two years in a row — first during Tropical Storm Irene last August, and most recently during Sandy.
“I saw ripples … the floor was rippling,” said Crystal Rodriguez, who rode out the storm on the second floor of her apartment in Building 29 with her three children. She estimated that the water flooding her first floor reached at least a 6-inch level.
All of the furniture on the first floor — sofas, tables, television sets — was destroyed. And with power out for a week, all of the food in her fridge was gone, too.
Rodriguez has been told she must move out of Marina Village temporarily, while her building is renovated. But with nowhere to go, she was still living there last week. Piles of clothing and trinkets were strewn across her first-floor living room, showing half-hearted attempts at packing. The heating system was still off-line, so the oven was open in order to warm the kitchen.
“I’ve had to spend money that I don’t have,” said Rodriguez, 27, who is getting her high school diploma from the University of Bridgeport and relies on the state for aid. As for how she’ll get to school — she walks for now, since campus is close by — and what school her kids will attend once she moves, Rodriguez hasn’t yet had time to think about.
Next door, 24-year-old Rebecca Hernandez was sorting through what remained of her and her 5-year-old son’s belongings. She bent down to show how one of the floor tiles could be easily be picked up.
“All of them are like that,” she said.
Hernandez, too, will need to move out temporarily, but she still hasn’t figured out where she will go, either. So she and her son still live in their apartment, which smells strongly of mildew and mold — though she said that a humidifier given to them has helped with her son’s asthma.
Calace said the cost of replacing the flooded Marina Village apartments, along with the rest of the damage incurred to public housing units by Sandy, will be on the order of $1 million. The Bridgeport Housing Authority expects to get much of that reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but not all.
And despite the fact that the buildings in Marina Village have now been flooded two years in a row, and that damage could have been far worse had the storm been slightly more severe, the renovations will happen and the buildings will stay put.
“The cost of doing the renovations right now is minor compared to what it would cost us to relocate the entire buildings elsewhere,” Calace said. “We contemplated that issue many times. We need the units.”
“I’m thinking of selling”
Just a few blocks from Marina Village, Mariela Wilches was assessing the damage at her home in Seaside Village, a cooperative affordable housing complex.
Wilches, 42, bought the little Victorian-style brick house 12 years ago for $15,000 and put $20,000 worth of repairs into it, painting the walls bright and textured greens and oranges.
Last year, she lost her washer, dryer and water heater when her basement flooded during Tropical Storm Irene. She replaced all of them and raised them on concrete blocks, at FEMA’s suggestion.
But the blocks weren’t high enough for Sandy. Water flooded her basement by more than a foot higher than during Irene, and she had to replace all the machines yet again. She has now put them on the first floor, rather than in the basement. Her furnace is not working, either, but she can’t afford to replace that until her insurance paperwork comes through. So she has been paying rent at another temporary apartment for now.
“I am thinking of selling,” Wilches said. Two people are interested in buying the property, she said — though she’s warned them that it may flood more often.
Still, she expects someone to buy the house because she’ll sell it cheap. She doesn’t expect to get more than $20,000 for it.
“I’m going to lose money,” she said. “I have many things to pay, you know. I have my bills, I have to send money to my country [her native home of Colombia], so it’s going to be very hard.” Wilches earns $40,000 a year as a machine operator in Fairfield.
Cathy Garofalo, the property manager for Seaside Village, said that of the co-op’s 257 units, only about 20 escaped significant damage.
“I went through Irene,” she said. “Irene, now in retrospect, has done nowhere near what this has done. It’s more than double what Irene was.”
Asked if the market rate for the properties would decrease, Garofalo wouldn’t speculate. “Hopefully, it’s just the 100-year flood that we have to deal with and not the concurrent events,” she said.
Others’ suffering continues
Just the loss of power for several days in almost all of Bridgeport’s public and low-income housing areas took a severe toll on residents.
Finch remembered walking in the Marina Village just as water was receding from the streets after the storm had hit. A family with two little children approached him; both children needed to be on special medical equipment, such as a breathing apparatus.
“They said, what do we do if we don’t get electricity?” he recalled. “They can’t survive without this. And I said, well, you have to go out in the middle of the street and flash down a police officer or National Guardsman and get some help.”
Calace said that before the storm hit, Housing Authority staff printed out the names of thousands of families in public housing that were considered “at-risk” and knocked on every door to make sure people got the help they needed. They also handed out 6,000 ready-to-eat meals in the first few days after the storm, with FEMA and the National Guard pitching in more.
Still, a week without power created hardships for many.
“Some of the families that we work with, they have seven and eight kids,” said said Keishanna McCalmon, who works for a program in Bridgeport called Stable Families, which helps at-risk residents. “So after you lose all of the food in your refrigerator, it’s great that you’re able to get an extra $200, but it’s not enough.”
Preparing for the next storm
Beyond the immediate repairs that still need to be made, Calace has other concerns: How can Bridgeport prepare for a storm that’s even more severe the next time around?
As Gov. Dannel Malloy put it in a news conference in Bridgeport last week: “We dodged a bullet.” Malloy said that had Sandy moved just a little bit slower, downtown Bridgeport could have seen the kind of damage that New York’s Staten Island experienced.
P.T. Barnum Apartments, another public housing complex in Bridgeport with about 1,000 residents, had braced itself for such an event. First-floor residents were evacuated, and Calace was sure the boilers in the basement would be lost.
Amazingly, the building didn’t flood at all. But if it had, the situation would have been dire.
“We could not have replaced [the boilers] in time for the heating season,” Calace said, meaning 1,000 people would have had to be relocated for the winter. There are very few vacancies in Bridgeport’s public housing, and the waiting list for “Section 8” housing, or privately owned housing for low-income residents, is thousands of people long.
“It would have been devastating,” said McCalmon, who works out of an office in P.T. Barnum Apartments.
And yet there are no plans to move the boilers from the basement to a higher level. That would mean losing 40-80 units on the first floor, which the Housing Authority can’t afford to do, Calace said.
Instead, the plan is to install pumps that could help redirect floodwaters away from the boilers should the basement end up in trouble. In the areas of Marina Village that are susceptible to flooding, Calace said renovations will include extra protections around the electrical wiring and in the closets where water heaters are stored.
Calace said he also wants to make sure that Bridgeport’s buildings that house the elderly have generators so that elevators can still be used during a power outage, and that stairways can be lit.
In Norwalk, Housing Director Curtis Law said that some units in the waterfront public housing complex of Washington Village had 10-12 inches of floodwater.
The city has been studying the option of rebuilding a mixed-income development in its place that would be less susceptible to flooding because the units would be raised, and drainage issues could also be addressed. But such a project would be expensive, and the city must compete for tens of millions in federal funding to build it.
In Bridgeport, there are few options to address the concerns about flooding at public housing complexes.
“Unfortunately, you’re dealing with it from a risk management perspective. I mean, we could spend billions of dollars to try to make it perfectly safe, and we may never have another storm for 100 years,” Calace said. “On the other hand, you could do nothing, and you could have a 2-inch rainstorm that could cause havoc as well.”
For Marina Village resident Crystal Rodriguez, the threat of more flooding year after year won’t stop her from moving back once her apartment is renovated. She doesn’t really have anywhere else to go, she said.
Still, the consequences for her are also psychological, she said.
“Just watching all the water just come and hearing the wind and the rain and all that. It just spooked me,” she said. “So I don’t know if it’s going to ever be the same.”
This story is the result of a reporting partnership between WNPR and the Mirror. Listen to a radio version here.