It's been just over a month since Storm Sandy crashed to shore and while most people's lives are back to normal and filled with preparations for the holidays, that's not the case for Old Lyme's hardest hit shoreline residents.
Marla Richardson's home at White Sands beach in Old Lyme was flooded by Sandy's storm surge. The flood water damaged the foundation and destroyed all the mechanics—the heating system and the wiring—in the cellar, rendering her home uninhabitable.
"I'm homeless and I have four children," said Richardson, 41. So while her kids are asking when they can get a Christmas tree, she's concerned that they may not have a place to put it because, as of December 6, her family has to be out of the academic rental they've been staying in at Sound View Beach.
In theory, Richardson's situation should make her a good candidate for assistance from FEMA or for a low interest loan from the federal Small Business Administration. Getting that help in practice, however, has turned out to be harder than Richardson expected.
Richardson has homeowners insurance but not flood insurance, which means that she's not covered for the water damage and her policy won't cover the additional living expenses she now faces as she has to pay rent to live elsewhere until her home is repaired.
As a recently divorced single mother reentering the workforce after 10 years of being a stay-at-home mom, she works three jobs but doesn't make enough to cover mortgage payments and rent.
FEMA aims to help people make their homes safe and secure following a disaster and can provide housing assistance in the interim. But FEMA needs a letter from Richardson's insurance company explaining the situation and so far, her insurance company has been unable to provide one with wording that satisfies FEMA.
Richardson thought she'd be a good candidate for a low interest loan from the Small Business Administration. But because her name hasn't yet been removed from the mortgage for the house she shared with her ex-husband, her debt to income ratio doesn't look good on paper. So far, the SBA has rejected her application.
Richardson said she's not sure what it's going to take to repair her home or whether she's going to need to raise the house or not. Her car, which was also deluged by sea water, is now on the verge of breaking down too.
The SBA will provide loans to cover the cost of rental cars or to repair or replace a car damaged by flooding but again, she's not been deemed eligible.
Everyone she's spoken to at the FEMA field offices wants to help her, Richardson said. But the person making the final decision is farther up the food chain and has so far turned down her application for assistance.
"I'm asking for help and swallowing my pride," said Richardson, "and they beat you down until you just want to give up."
Little Help for Beach Communities
Richardson was one of many people who turned out at Old Lyme Town Hall last night for an opportunity to meet one-on-one with officials from FEMA, the Federal Flood Insurance Program's mitigation division, the State Insurance Department, and the SBA.
As it stands right now, 266 homes in Old Lyme have been deemed "unsafe," 62 are "uninhabitable," and four seasonal homes have to be completely demolished because Sandy washed them right off their foundations and, in some cases, into Long Island Sound.
The town decided to organize the event after seeing so many people coming in seeking assistance who were going from office to office in Town Hall asking many of the same questions. But, as Old Lyme's Director of Emergency Management David Roberge predicted before the meeting, many of them were disappointed with the answers they heard.
Many of the homes that sustained the most damage are seasonal properties and neither FEMA nor the SBA offers assistance if the property damaged is not the primary residence. The SBA will provide loans in such cases only if the property is a rental unit, which makes it a business, or if extended family members use the second home as a primary residence.
That means property owners have to shoulder most of the financial burden for repairing storm damage and if they didn't have flood insurance, that won't be covered by their regular homeowners' insurance policy. Gary Gnazzo owns two homes in Miami Beach, one is seasonal and one is a year round property but in the 45 years he's lived there, he said he's never had flood insurance—and he's not the only one.
Old Lyme's beach communities face additional problems because they are organized by charter as associations that serve as quasi-municipal agencies separate from the town itself. That means they are responsible for their own roads and for mitigation of any environmental issues, including concerns about the safety of well water, arising from the storm.
"We're trying to get some assistance with debris to open up roads," said Paul Yellen of Old Lyme Shores, which has about 250 residents, some 25 of whom live there year round.
But FEMA doesn't offer assistance to private associations.
The beach associations only hope from the Federal government is an SBA loan. The SBA considers such associations to be for-profit businesses, however, so the interest rates, while still low compared to a standard bank loan, are higher at 4 percent than they would be for nonprofits (3 percent) or individuals (1.6 percent), and the maximum loan amount provided by the SBA is $2 million for the entire association.
In short, a lot of people who own properties by the beach in Old Lyme last night found out that they're essentially on their own.