The floodwaters churned by Superstorm Sandy damaged waterfront homes along Connecticut’s southwest coast, and turned the charming center of tony Westport into a ghost town, with sandbags lining streets of flooded-out boutique shops.
A fire at the height of last week’s storm destroyed three Greenwich mansions, and hundreds of Fairfield homeowners waited days for water to recede so they could return to their homes.
While Connecticut was spared the destruction seen in New York and New Jersey, many communities along the shoreline – including some of the wealthiest towns in America – were struggling with one of the most severe storms in generations.
For some living along Connecticut’s vaunted “Gold Coast,” the effects of Sandy and earlier storms were enough to reconsider life on the waterfront.
“We feel traumatized and displaced,” said Jessica Levitt, the mother of two young children while waiting last week for the waters to subside in Fairfield, in a neighborhood of modest and more expensive homes. “Everyone is walking around with these blank looks on their faces. Nobody knows where to go and what to do.”
The storm battered the entire Connecticut shoreline, destroying homes in cities and towns including Milford, East Haven and Norwalk. Three people were killed.
In Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, flooding and widespread power outages complicated the lives of thousands.
“There’s no heat. Our food is destroyed,” said Yvonne Figueroa, 21, of Bridgeport, who said she could not get paid because the Fairfield clothing store where she works lost power. “I haven’t been to work. I’m broke.”
But the storm upended life most dramatically perhaps in the wealthier towns of Fairfield County, which is known for its hedge funds, New York City commuters and consistently high ratings for quality of life.
Along the shoreline community of Westport, remnants of Sandy’s wrath were everywhere – canoes, massive sewer pumps and propane tanks ripped from homes in jumbled heaps at the end of streets.
Rumors were everywhere too: that the power wouldn’t return for weeks, that a baby shark had washed up on a beach, and that a house had been washed away when, in fact, it was still standing.
Mary Anne Mayo, a 58-year-old lawyer and her husband, Stephen Nelson, 62, also a lawyer, have lived for 15 years in a 40-year-old contemporary post and beam house at a corner overlooking where the Saugatuck river flows into Long Island Sound.
Sitting Friday in her second floor living room with sweeping views of the water, she fielded phone calls from heating and electrical contractors, insurance adjusters and FEMA. Below, all that could be heard was the deafening din of workers with heavy equipment tearing out the soaking sheet rock from a first floor that barely exists anymore, washed away by the storm surge. Pieces of her furniture, some of which had floated into the nearby yacht club, sat drying in the muck that covered the front yard.
“We had flooding with Irene, but not like this,” she said. “It was mucky and disgusting, but it just soaked our carpets. It didn’t pull out our sheet rock.”
Mayo said that after the initial horror of seeing the damage, a thousand emotions and thoughts filled her head. Should they leave the home and community they love? Should they try to rebuild and raise the house or should they tear it down?
“We’re close to retirement age,” she said, choking up. “ow we have to get another mortgage.”
The same questions were being asked by her neighbors down the road on Saugatuck Island, a tight-knit community of about 100 homes, as they shoveled mountains of sand and debris from their yards, mucked out five feet of silt from their basements and surveyed the tangled jumbles of electrical power lines scattered along streets.
The community is a mixture of older cottages and large, expensive modern homes with a picturesque neighborhood beach, and home to the Cedar Point Yacht Club. The randomness of the storm was astounding. Some smaller cottages crumpled or were washed away. Some larger homes had breakaway trellis walls ripped off, but were still standing.
Backhoes and heavy excavating equipment droned down every street and in some instances workers wore haz-mat suits as they sorted through debris. Out on the water, barges could be seen towing the remains of piers and docks that had been torn from waterside homes.
Jim Hood had finished repairing his five-bedroom, contemporary-style Westport home from damage done by Tropical Storm Irene just last week. Now, he’s facing $150,000 or more in repairs from Sandy, which dumped 10 feet of water into his entry way.
Out-of-town friends made their house available to Hood’s family, but he is staying put at his waterfront home. Because the storm blew doors off his house, he worries about security.
“It’s a nice house, in a nice neighborhood,” said Hood, a consultant. “I’m very concerned about the possibility of looting.”
Sandy didn’t spare Greenwich. Many houses near the water had inspection signs, designating whether they were safe or unsafe to occupy, and the usually tidy town was filled with water damaged possessions in yards.
Contractors buzzed around Jay Shaw’s house overlooking Long Island Sound with a view of a lighthouse. The storm tore a third of Shaw’s dock off and tossed it about 40 feet away into the water.
The 58-year-old Shaw, who works for a private equity firm, figures he has about $500,000 worth of damage to his colonial house. But he wasn’t complaining. He’s been through plenty of storms on the coast.
“It sort of goes with the territory,” he said. “I just sort of expect every five years to have a week of disaster to deal with. Certainly not disaster compared to a whole bunch of other people.”
Barbara Norrgard, who lives near the water in Greenwich, also was dealing with flooding and had an unsafe sticker on her house. The 80-year-old retired teacher lost her prized collection of books and sheet music.
“It’s a little frightening to think about it,” Norrgard said about the extent of the damages. “I’m feeling kind of numb. I have to keep reminding myself when I look at the television and see the destruction on the New Jersey coast, at least we still have a house.”
In Fairfield, Arthur Yann found the basement of his house near the beach filled with water. Antique furniture and the paintings of Nantucket where he and his wife, Amy, enjoy vacationing, may not be salvageable. The water even reached the second floor, destroying a Persian rug.
The couple was planning to tear down their home and build a new one before the storm abruptly sent them into an apartment.
“Looks like we won’t be moving back into our house,” Arthur Yann said. “It’s a sad way for that house to come to an end.”
Late in the week, the National Guard escorted residents on military vehicles to see flooded neighborhoods in Fairfield, where huge pumps were working to remove the water.
Karen Kahn was also coping with flooding to her home near Compo Beach, in Westport.
“Yesterday it was shock, tears, anxiety,” she said Wednesday. “In a strange way I feel I’m violated. It’s as if something came and dirtied, soiled my home, my place.”
But Kahn, a 60-year-old owner of a consulting company for large law firms, suddenly noticed a red rose that survived the storm. Chirping birds mixed strangely with the buzzing of water pumps and chain saws. She is determined to stay.
Levitt, a psychologist, sounded less certain after living through Irene and Sandy. Her husband wasn’t able to reach their Fairfield home by kayak until Wednesday. Late last week, they were still waiting to learn the extent of the damage.
“Maybe after all this clears we’ll remember how beautiful it is to live by the beach and everything will return back to normal,” Levitt said. “Or maybe we’ll decide it’s not worth the risk and head to higher ground.”
Allen Ferriello, 57, a finance manager who works in New York City, has lived a short walk from the beach in Westport for 18 years and is sure life will quickly return to normal.
“I think in six months this will all be a bad memory,” he said. “People will be back to living here and loving it and saying, `that was the big one, we’re safe for another 10 years.”’
(Associated Press writers Dave Collins and Helen O’Neill contributed to this report.)