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posted: 11/7/2013 5:30 AM

Raise the house, lower the flood risk

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  • Eileen Benner's Atlantic City home in the process of being elevated after it suffered severe flood damage during last year's Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey.

      Eileen Benner's Atlantic City home in the process of being elevated after it suffered severe flood damage during last year's Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS/L & R RESOURCES, LLC

 
By Carole Feldman, Associated Press

Eileen Benner says elevating her home in Atlantic City, N.J., was a "no-brainer" after it suffered extensive flood damage during Superstorm Sandy. "I would tell anybody who has the money available to go ahead and do it," she says.

John Paynter's Long Beach Island, N.J., vacation home now stands 13 feet higher than it did before the storm a year ago. He, too, says he's glad he did it, though the process itself was nerve-wracking: "You heard a lot of cracks and creaks."

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Nationwide, insurance claims for flooding damage totaled on average more than $3 billion annually from 2003 to 2012, according to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). And rising sea levels and more severe storms mean that in some areas, more homeowners are finding themselves in flood zones for the first time or in higher-risk ones.

The most common way to reduce the risk: elevating the home, the NFIP says.

The process can cost a lot -- more than $100,000 in many cases, depending on the home's size, location and foundation. But homeowners may be eligible to get some help from flood insurance policies and grants.

Flood elevation maps determine whether a property needs to be raised and by how much. Homeowners in high risk zones who choose not to raise their homes could see their flood insurance premiums skyrocket.

Roderick Scott of L&R Resources, a Mandeville, La., company that does home elevations, recommends lifting a house 1 or 2 feet above the minimum needed to get a flood elevation certificate.

"You don't want to elevate structures more than once in their lifetime," he says.

Homes with an open foundation -- with a basement or crawl space -- are the easiest and least expensive to raise. "It's easy to get underneath and get the structure of the house from underneath and lift it up," he says.

Raising those built on a slab foundation takes more time and money. "You have to open up walls and remove lower cabinets," Scott says.

Any air conditioning and heating systems in the basement must be relocated, as well as power and other utilities. "They have to go on or above the main level of the structure so they won't be damaged," Scott says.

And then there's the question of how you'll get up to the higher house. Where will you put the stairs, for example?

"A lot of seniors live at the beach. They may need to integrate a lift," says Scott.

He uses a hydraulic machine to jack up a house, and says the process is so smooth that he once put a glass of red wine on a tabletop. "Not a drop was spilled," he says. Still, he advises people to take pictures off the walls and pack up any valuable crystal.

A house may be set down on pilings or cinder blocks, depending on the height.

It's likely that millions of homes will have to be raised based on redrawn flood maps nationwide, Scott says. However, Dan Watson, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says it's difficult to say how many and where: "In some cases the risk has gone down and in some cases it has gone up."

In 2012, Louisiana had the most flood damage claims, followed by New Jersey and New York.

In Brick Township, N.J., Mayor Stephen C. Acropolis says about 8,500 homes suffered water damage during Sandy, and that more than half of those will have to be raised because of redrawn maps. He says many people got temporary certificates of occupancy that give them four years to elevate.

His own home, he says, is "a 51 percenter -- that means your house was damaged to more than 50 percent of the value of your home. And so is my son's and a lot of people in my neighborhood."

He's not rushing into elevating his home, though. "We're going to get prices, we're going to deal with engineers," he says. "I don't see a ton of people elevating their homes right away unless they had the money."

Benner felt she didn't have a choice. The water in her duplex after Sandy was a foot deep. It cost $21,000 to lift the house, she says, and she expects the total bill to be $130,000 to $140,000. Part of that was offset by a clause in her flood insurance policy that gave her $30,000 to meet the new height requirements.

"By the time I'm done, my base floor is going to be about 12 feet" higher than it used to be, she says. "I feel comfortable."

After Paynter's house was lifted, "I had to build stairs. I had to build a front porch. I had to reattach the utilities," he says. He also built a new chimney and redid the house's flood-damaged interior.

Total cost? He estimates $140,000.

He moved back in in August. "I'm very happy," he says.

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