For Bridgeport, Post-Sandy Life Still A Struggle

Dec 10, 2012

Superstorm Sandy took a heavy toll on residents of public and low-income housing in Bridgeport. Those living near the water are faced with rebuilding as well as trying to prepare for the next storm. But they simply can’t afford to do both.

Debris still litters the front yards of Seaside Village in Bridgeport. It’s the second year in a row that resident Mariela Wilches has lost her washer, drier, water heater and furnace. Not only does she have to replace them all again, she has to pay rent to live somewhere while she has no heat.

“When I bought this place I rebuilt everything. I spent a lot of money on this place," she says. "And I didn’t expect that every time we have a storm I have to go away, you know?”

Wilches bought her little Victorian-style brick home in this affordable housing complex for $15,000 more than 10 years ago. She put $20,000 of repairs into it, painting the walls bright and textured greens, oranges and yellows. When her basement flooded last year during Tropical Storm Irene and destroyed all her appliances, FEMA gave her $4000 to replace them and told her to raise them on a concrete block. But the block wasn’t high enough this time around.

“I have many things to pay, you know? I have my bills," she says. "I have to send money to my country, too. So it’s going to be very hard, you know.”

Wilches, who is from Colombia, said all of her neighbors are fed up. Nearly all of the units for Seaside Village were badly flooded during Superstorm Sandy. She’s thinking of selling, but she doesn’t expect to get more than $20,000 for her home. That means she’ll lose tens of thousands of dollars on her investment. But Wilches can’t think of another option.

“They send me a papers that I can have a loan. But at this point, how am I going to pay a loan?”

The most Wilches can do is rebuild and hope things aren’t worse during the next storm. And it’s the same story for Marina Village, a public housing complex that’s right next to Seaside Village. Bridgeport Housing Authority director Nick Calace said part of the complex flooded last year. This year, the water was even higher, he recalls:

“I can tell you what I remember. I saw the tips of the fences. That’s all I saw here, were the tips of these three-foot fences here.”

Thirty families have had to move out of these apartment units. But some of them will be able to move back once renovations have been made – even though their buildings have now been hit by flood waters two years in a row.  

So why rebuilt them at all?

“First of all, we need the units," Calace says -- in other words, there’s nowhere else to put these families, Calace says.

Sandy will already cost the Bridgeport Housing Authority on the order of a million dollars – or at least, that’s what Calace expects to get back from FEMA and insurance companies. Getting new land to build new housing would be way too expensive.

"The cost of doing the renovations right now is minor compared to what it would cost us to relocate the entire building elsewhere," he says. "We contemplated that issue many times.”

What’s scarier is what could have happened had the storm surges been as high as Connecticut officials feared. Calace said he was sure that P.T. Barnum apartments, another public housing complex in Bridgeport, was going to lose its boilers, which are in the basement.

“A thousand people live at P.T. If we would have lost the boilers, I couldn’t even think of – we could not have replaced it in time for the heating season," Calace says.

Calace doesn’t know where he could have relocated all those families. But still, options for preparing for the future are few and far between. Moving the boilers to the first floor would mean losing precious apartment units on that floor. So the best Calace can do is think about installing some pumps in the basement to redirect flood waters away from the boilers.

Back at Marina Village, Crystal Rodriguez and her 3 children rode out Superstorm Sandy on the second floor of her apartment. She watched with dismay from her stairwell as the first floor flooded.

“I see ripples," she remembers." The floor was rippling. So I was like, ‘oh my God, I know there’s water in here now.’”

She lost all her furniture and appliances on the first floor – as well as all the food in her fridge, since power was out for a week. For her, the damage has been financial and psychological. But she plans to move back when the heating and electrical wiring has been fixed.

“Just watching all the water just come and hearing the winds and the rain and all that. It just, it spooked me out," she says. "So I don’t know if it’s going to ever be the same.”

Like most residents of Marina Village, Rodriguez has nowhere else to go.

Read more in the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.