October superstorm stripped beachfront home of stairs, pushed water, sand into living, storage areas
Editor's note: This is the second in an ongoing series of stories on one East Lyme family's efforts to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy.
East Lyme - Robin Soule stepped from the top of a ladder onto a platform dusted by an overnight snowfall to reach the entrance of her family cottage on Atlantic Street in Crescent Beach.
Superstorm Sandy last October ripped off the cottage's outdoor staircase, deposited 3 feet of sand in the storage space below the first floor, pushed the propane gas tank more than a block away from the house and blew the outdoor garage off its foundation and into a nearby pond.
Months later, as the sun shone brightly on a chilly winter morning and seagulls gathered at nearby McCook Point Park, Soule and her husband faced the task of assessing the cottage's electrical damage and the cost of repairs.
In 1909, Soule's family purchased the three-story cottage with green shutters, brown shingles and white railings, along a sandy stretch on Niantic Bay. Generations of her family have spent summers there. Soule, a third-grade teacher at Flanders Elementary School, and her husband, John Eberle, a civil engineer, have three daughters, live in town and share the summer cottage with relatives.
With help from contractors, family and neighbors, Soule and Eberle have started the repairs. They met with insurance adjusters, cleaned up the garage's debris from a nearby field and even found a new home for a beloved sailboat that had cracked during the storm.
Now, Soule was continuing the several-months-long repair process that began in the days before the storm, when she gathered her family's memorabilia from the cottage.
Eberle and electrician Jamie Gada of the Niantic-based Jamco Electric followed Soule up the ladder to inspect the interior for damage from the storm surge.
Making her way through the cottage in the dark, Soule cast open the shutters revealing the sandy beach beyond and allowing the morning light to stream into the space. The living room where her family played games during previous summers became visible.
Gada inspected an electrical panel and measured the distance between the floor and the electrical outlets.
"When the waves crashed open the door, you got some of the runoff in here," Eberle said to the electrician. The surge brought about 3 inches of water into the room.
As part of his inspection, Gada needed to ensure that saltwater hadn't damaged the electrical outlets and to see whether fixtures needed to be moved during repairs to comply with current electrical codes.
Shortly after, they all conferred on the porch.
"We can get you power sooner than later," Gada said. "We just want to make sure we get the power in the right place."
The family needs electricity so contractors can use power tools to repair the cottage. Repairing the cottage, which has been deemed structurally intact, will entail obtaining insurance estimates, drawing up plans for repairs, installing new electrical equipment, digging out sand piled in the storage area and then repairing damaged areas.
Generations of the Soule family and friends have enjoyed summers at the beachfront house. Photo albums show the three-story cottage as a constant family fixture over the years.
In the black-and-white photos, her father sat as a child with relatives and neighbors on the cottage steps; smiling children peeked out from under mounds of sand on the beach near the house; her aunt, Marjorie Widnall, dove near a jetty into Niantic Bay; and a man stood on stilts as part of an entertainment act from the period when a tuberculosis sanitorium stood at neighboring McCook's.
Soule retrieved these and other family heirlooms from the cottage just before the storm hit: the photo albums, historical books from the Hurricane of 1938, ship paintings and a cowbell once used to call in playing children for dinner.
"I'm just so glad we have these things," she said.
When the late-October storm hit the northeastern seaboard, the storm surge pushed so much sand into the cottage's ground floor that Soule was no longer able to stand in there and walk around. She now crouches to reach the space that once housed boats and supplies.
The ensuing winter has brought more wind and waves.
A late-December nor'easter covered Soule's front yard with large rocks from the bay and again pushed water through the storage space.
Faced with the challenge of cleaning up the sand and rocks, Soule was able to find - and plans to hire - a contractor with a small backhoe that can maneuver in the space.
When opening the cottage for the summer years ago, the family would sweep away sand and small rocks from the front yard - but nothing like the task facing them now.
Soule and Eberle have just months before their traditional May move-in date.
But Soule said she realizes they are lucky, and she is glad they strengthened the seawall in front of the cottage after damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Soule said she thinks that step saved the cottage from further damage during Sandy.
"I want this cottage," Soule said with enthusiasm as she stood on the steps where generations had stood before. "It's in my blood."