MILFORD — It's been a stressful year for anyone who entered the town's Parsons Government Center Thursday and followed handmade signs to the "intake center" seeking relief payments for storm Sandy.
More exactly, it's been a stressful 360 days, the time since the hurricane-turned-tropical storm ripped into their houses in this and other communities along the shoreline, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage for each of them. Many, including retired newspaper executive Ron Masury, have still not returned to live at home.
And so the newly opened center — one of four along the shoreline that debuted Thursday — was a welcome sight for these haggard homeowners, even though some may wonder why it took so long. After a year of heart-wrenching cleanup, insurance headaches and learning more about hurricane relief and flood zone regulations than they ever hoped to know, they're in line for a piece of Connecticut's $56 million share of federal housing aid for homeowners.
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Masury left the office complimenting the staff of outside contractors hired by the state Department of Housing, calling this "the best put together" aid program he's seen.
"Only because I came prepared," said Masury, carrying a 10-inch stack of materials. "It's like a root canal. You come prepared."
The root canal, for him, is a dilemma that hundreds of homeowners in this town are facing. Because Sandy caused damage totaling more than 50 percent of the value of his house in the Point Beach neighborhood, and because he lives in a flood zone eight houses from Long Island Sound, he must elevate the structure on a new foundation — at an estimated cost of at least $80,000, not covered by insurance.
Until he does that, he can't occupy the house, or even do the repairs that are covered by his insurance — so he's living in a rental in Hamden subsidized by taxpayers through FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And he's one of the lucky ones, as he sees it. Many of his neighbors lost their homes, and others in his situation have jobs, children and other daily concerns that he doesn't have. One woman at the center Thursday had her mortgage lender take her insurance settlement, leaving her in a Catch-22 that could cost her the house.
Under the program, homeowners can receive repairs and storm-related upgrades such as elevating the house, valued at up to $150,000, which will be done by an existing list of contractors approved by the state. But the restrictions are many: This must be their primary residence, with a clean deed and no foreclosure actions. The work covers damage not covered by insurance, FEMA or other sources, and preference is given to people with income under 80 percent of the area's median — $51,550 a year for a two-person household in this town.
And if they've already done the work, there's a good chance the program won't have money to reimburse them. That's bound to anger some people who dug into retirement savings or borrowed from family to get back into their houses.
Adam J. Shaker is optimistic he'll qualify for money to fix about $25,000 in damage to his tiny bungalow house, three properties up from the water. He inherited the property from his grandfather just after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and was told he needed hurricane insurance, so he bought it.
But he was dismayed to learn after Sandy that storm surges count as floods, not hurricanes — and he didn't have flood coverage. FEMA also denied him any aid because, he said, the house that's been in his family since it was built in 1920 was still tied up in the inheritance trust.
"The house is starting to sag now," he pointed out, after we drove to see it. The surge ruined the furnace, and collapsed the septic system. Now his insurer is threatening to revoke his coverage unless he does repairs. "I had to plead with them," he said, to give him more time.
And so the HUD money, under the Community Development Block Grant program, is a last resort as the Sandy anniversary arrives. Evonne Klein, commissioner of the state Department of Housing, said the year-long wait was caused largely by Congress taking six months to approve the money. This program was in place online at the end of August, with systems and contractors in place.
"In six months, we certainly have moved our team quickly," Klein said.
Shaker, a construction contractor who said he nonetheless can't afford to do this job, looked toward the end of his street, where one house was demolished and another stands condemned, the property for sale. Milford alone had 200 to 250 houses rendered uninhabitable by Sandy, said Bill Richards, recovery coordinator for the town.
Knowing those neighbors are less fortunate, Shaker, 32, said he'd love to see the work done before the first snowfall, the second winter after the storm.
"But that's just wishful thinking," he said.
Homeowners may call 1-866-272-1976 to make an appointment at one of the four centers in Milford, East Haven, Fairfield and Norwalk, or may apply online at http://www.ct.gov/DOH, click on "Hurricane Sandy."