The homes are razed and nature is left to take over
By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor
WEST HAVEN, Conn. — Four characters feature in this small-scale environmental drama with its happy ending: the city of West Haven, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the West Haven Watershed Restoration Committee, and nature.
Let’s begin with nature — it’s certainly the protagonist. Appearing first in the form of Hurricane Irene in 2011 and soon thereafter as Superstorm Sandy in 2012, nature had made a real mess of life in low-lying coastal areas of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
Basements and streets filled with water. First responders ferried people from their homes. Residents slept on friends’ and relatives’ couches. Appliances, carpet, sheetrock and furniture were replaced — and then replaced again.
And then there was the mold, and the anxiety.
“There was significant mold in every house we’re working with. The water table was so high that the situation got so bad that every rainstorm could be devastating,” said Eileen Krugel, who oversees remedial efforts in West Haven’s Old Field Creek neighborhood, where summer homes had been built — and later expanded — in the middle of the last century, right in the middle of a marsh beside the western entrance to New Haven Harbor.
This kind of mess clearly wasn’t going to go away any time soon. Recognizing this, in 2013 the USDA got Congress to appropriate $178 million for the Floodplain Easement (FPE) option of the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) for communities in the hundred-year floodplain in states affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Krugel, the city’s grant writer, oversees the $3.8 million West Haven project, in large part because a dedicated group of Old Field Creek area residents had already decided that enough was enough.
Former resident Sharon Roy said, “After Sandy, some of us had created the West Haven Watershed Restoration Committee to try to figure out what to do. I was even looking into portable barriers to keep the water out. I can’t tell you the amount of time we had spent trying to find a way to stay in our houses. But you have to realize that when your house is in the floodplain, the water table is right underneath you.”
About the time committee members showed up at City Hall to see what kind of help might be available, the EWP-FPE funds had become available through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This local interest set in motion a series of meetings with property owners, consultations with local, state and national officials, and, finally, offers to buy and demolish houses and restore the land to its natural state.
The deal is pretty straightforward: the federal government offers the homeowners fair-market value for the house and land as determined on the day before Sandy hit; the house is demolished; the land is returned to its natural state.
It’s a win-win situation, everyone seems to agree. The homeowners sell properties that otherwise wouldn’t have been sellable; the town “sponsors” the buyout but the federal government pays the bills and does the work; the need to support flood-hazard insurance is decreased; first responders won’t have to rescue stranded homeowners; inland areas are protected as marshlands resume their ability to absorb tidal surges and flooding.
Krugel explained what prompted one homeowner, who has since moved to Florida, to sell. He told her, “I just got tired of getting up in the morning and having to swim through my basement.”
NRCS state conservationist Tom Morgart recalled a conversation during an Old Field Creek site visit.
“I talked with one of the landowners there just before they tore down the house,” he said. “I asked him about the fairness of the deal. He said it was fine. Then I asked how he knew it was time to move. He said, ‘I just had to count how many times I’d had to replace our furnace. Three times.’”
West Haven is farther along in the process than other municipalities, according to Morgart, with 13 homeowners having signed over their houses for demolition and another 19 in the works. Morgart noted that vacant lots have also been bought to prevent further development.
Giving up their homes was often not an easy decision.
Roy had come to the neighborhood nine years ago, a retiree and a cancer survivor who had figured this would be her last home. She had loved the quiet, the wildlife, the proximity to Long Island Sound.
“But I couldn’t afford to stay there anymore,” she said. “I’d put all my savings into remodeling the house. We were told that over a period of five years, flood-hazard insurance would double. Putting my house on stilts would cost $150,000. I’d loved the fact that deer would come right up to the house, but I had financially no way of surviving.”
The decision was even more wrenching for widow Carol Ludington. She had lived in her house for 41 years, raising three children there.
“But I took all the emotion out of the decision,” she said. “I looked at it from a business standpoint. Some people didn’t want to do it, but some of us understood that lots of mistakes had been made before, and that the houses never should have been built here in the first place. I was glad that it was going to revert to its natural state. I’m glad to be gone.
“I did the right thing for my community. I tried to help others understand that it’s just a house.”
There is general agreement that the success of the venture rests on the willingness of West Haven to serve as sponsor, and of the ability of Krugel to provide support for undecided, and often upset, residents while making her way through the stacks of paperwork associated with the project.
Roy and Ludington have relocated nearby. One of the ways they have coped with the experience has been to form the Sandy Point Restoration Society. The group has planted indigenous vegetation, including flowers that attract butterflies, cleared natural pathways and set up a lookout platform on the Point, which stretches into Long Island Sound.
“The endangered piping plover lays its eggs in the sand there,” Roy said. “That effort helped us recover from the shock, like a healing process.”
Krugel hopes that this healing will continue, recalling that one of the women who moved to nearby Old Saybrook told her, “I was the first person the Realtor had met who didn’t want to live by the water.”
To Morgart, the program’s goals are simple: “We’re taking people out of harm’s way while restoring the land to a more natural condition.”
Providence resident Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant. He runs a blog called Waiting for the Barbarian.