Connecticut: Sandy's (sometimes) forgotten victim

Dylan Stableford


MILFORD, Conn. — Houses ripped in half. Neighborhoods submerged in floodwaters. Power lines snapped like twigs. National Guard troops patrolling shore communities in Humvees. Residents kayaking flooded city streets to reach stores for supplies, only to find them closed. A half-million homes without power, some for weeks or more.

It didn't get as much media attention as New York and New Jersey, but Connecticut — those states' smaller New England neighbor — was pounded by Superstorm Sandy. State officials say the storm killed five people and damaged more than 38,000 homes.

 A year later, some parts of Connecticut are still recovering. And many victims trying to rebuild are navigating an increasingly stressful entanglement of insurance forms, relief applications and bureaucratic red tape.

"It makes you want to give up — there's a lot of confusion and misguidance," said Paola Goren, a graphic designer who lives in Milford, on Long Island Sound. It's one of the Connecticut cities hit hardest by Sandy — and one still reeling from Tropical Storm Irene the year before.

Goren spent months without heat, hot water or electricity after Sandy's storm surge flooded her 1928 Point Beach home. Now, she says, she's been inundated with paperwork — from insurance to federal and state aid — while trying to cover the mounting costs of rebuilding. She is just one of more than 12,000 Connecticut residents to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for federal disaster assistance.

According to FEMA, more than $283 million on federal disaster assistance, loans and insurance claims were paid to Connecticut during the six months following Sandy. In August, Gov. Dannel Malloy announced an additional $71.8 million in aid from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was on the way.

But some storm victims, like Joe Mirmina, say they've yet to see any of it.

Mirmina's three-story Milford home was flooded with five feet of water during Sandy. A city damage assessment concluded more than 50 percent of his home was damaged, triggering a federal requirement under the National Flood Insurance Program to elevate the house as part of the renovation. But Mirmina was denied bank and small-business loans, and FEMA aid has yet to materialize.

Mirmina, who paid $50,000 to rebuild after Irene, says he has enough in loans and savings to fix his home. But the cost of elevating it — at least $100,000, with federal guidelines limited to covering just $30,000 of that figure — is prohibitive.

"How is it that the government — whether it be city, state or federal — can force us to elevate our house at our expense to save the government money?" Mirmina asked.

According to city officials, approximately 250 homes in Milford need to be raised. An additional 450 were near that threshold.

"We want to rebuild," said Mirmina, who's lived in his Milford home with his wife for 28 years. "But we can't afford to do it, and we can't walk away."

Displaced, Mirmina and his wife are now living in the home of his father, who had been ill and passed away after Sandy.

Laurie Robinson, a Milford Public Works employee who rode out the storm for two days in a second-floor addition on her 1953 cape-style home, is in a similar position. Waiting for financial assistance to rebuild, she's been living in a camper in the driveway of her home for the past year.

"I call it my studio apartment," Robinson said of the trailer, adding that she plans to use the aid she's received from the Salvation Army and Red Cross to winterize it.

Adding insult to injury, many of the same towns hit by Sandy were smacked anew in February by a blizzard that dumped more than three feet of snow in Connecticut, including 38 inches in Milford. Four Connecticut deaths were blamed on the winter storm.

In May, Goren launched a Facebook group — Storm Victims Unite — to organize and support fellow Sandy victims in Milford. It has about 100 members.

"The residents are really frustrated, and we can't blame them," Bill Richards, Milford's recovery coordinator, told the Wall Street Journal in July.

In Fairfield, another hard-hit coastal community, officials say about two dozen homes remain vacated. State Rep. Brenda Kupchick of Fairfield is fed up with the delays.

"FEMA is a disaster," Kupchick told Yahoo News. "The program doesn't work. The process is completely insane. People get frustrated and give up. It shouldn't be this convoluted."

Kupchick says she has tried to get information for her constituents from federal officials, but to no avail.

"It's almost impossible to find out anything," Kupchick said.

Officials at FEMA and HUD did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Goren has had a similar experience at the city level.

"Every story they give us is different," she said. "It's basically a free-for-all."

"Ten months of frustration,” Milford Mayor Ben Blake said last month at a public forum on the recovery effort. “I understand the tensions."

Blake blamed, in part, "the alphabet soup that is the federal government assistance process."

And the frustration has reached Capitol Hill. "Many Irene and Sandy victims were, and are, out of their homes for over a year, which demonstrates the process is not fast enough," Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro said in an email to Yahoo News. "Connecticut residents are resilient, but no one should have to deal with this kind of uncertainty.”

Part of the reason Connecticut is often overlooked when it comes to Sandy might be because of the state's strong initial response.

"We didn't have sewage systems overrun, we didn't have subway systems overrun, we didn't have tunnels overrun, people drowning in their own homes," Malloy said in comparison to New York and New Jersey two weeks after the storm.

The other part might be the timing of the disaster. Two days after the nationally televised 12/12/12 concert benefiting Sandy victims, Connecticut became synonymous with an incomparable tragedy: the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.