Homeowners are beginning to raise their houses above the floodplain, in what could be the start of a dramatic reshaping of Long Island neighborhoods battered by superstorm Sandy.
For hundreds of homeowners, this action isn't yet possible because they can't figure out how to afford the estimated $80,000 to $150,000 cost. However, residents in Lindenhurst, Massapequa, South Seaford and East Quogue, among other hard-hit pockets, are scraping together the money, or the promise of it, in order to elevate their homes.
Houses must be deemed "substantially damaged" to get money from the federal government specifically for elevation. The benchmark for that designation is damage totaling at least 50 percent of a home's pre-disaster market value.
"When we saw how much water went into the house, we said we don't want to go back in there unless it's raised," said Dawn Vozzo, 39, whose three-bedroom home on Shore Road in Lindenhurst was lowered Thursday onto its new, 7-foot elevation. "We don't want to ever have to deal with this again."
The cost was about $60,000. Vozzo and her husband, Anthony, who have lived in the house 13 years, planned to pay half from savings and hope to get a $30,000 grant under the National Flood Insurance Program.
The choice to raise a home after a determination of substantial damage is driven in large part by the need to keep or obtain affordable flood insurance. The first floor must be at an elevation set on Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps and by local jurisdictions to comply with federal floodplain standards. The standards are set by municipalities' building codes, and vary according to the flood zone.
Other options for owners of these homes are similarly expensive and life altering: demolish and rebuild; try to sell the house as is; move the house to higher ground; or opt for a publicly assisted buyout, including a program being developed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Nearly four months since Sandy struck, what is clear is that raising a home is complex and arduous, involving high cost, complicated bureaucracy, lengthy delays and tough decisions.
Raising house even higher
Those who already have moved to raise their homes are not looking back.
Before Sandy, his house already was on 4-foot pilings; after Sandy, he hired an upstate firm to raise it even higher, at a cost of about $30,000. With the house temporarily sitting on wooden cribbing, he is awaiting work to begin on a new concrete foundation supported by pilings.
Siems said he was the first of the 31 houses on Captree after Sandy to elevate and he expects others to do the same. He plans to pay for it with a combination of money from insurance, government grants and his savings.
"For most in this country, your home is your biggest asset and investment," he said. "How do you say, 'Oh, never mind?' I'm on a pension. The options are limited."
"It was either raise it or put it in a Dumpster," Siems said.
FEMA and the state do not have a precise number of how many Long Island properties suffered enough damage to qualify for federal grants to elevate, but it is estimated to be in the thousands.
Officials in many towns and villages said they still are trying to determine the extent of damage to properties. The municipalities have a stake in alleviating flood danger: Localities must meet requirements of the government's floodplain management program, to allow residents to get insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.
A total of at least 2,543 structures found to be substantially damaged exist in towns and villages along the South Shore in Nassau and Suffolk counties, Long Beach and on Fire Island, local officials told Newsday.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation this month directed local officials to step up inspections and report estimates of homes declared to be substantially damaged.
In a Feb. 1 email, William Nechamen of the DEC's chief floodplain management section cautioned: "The best way to protect your residents not only from future floods but from the high price of flood insurance is to make sure that they meet elevation standards when rebuilding.
"Flood insurance policies for a properly elevated home can be as little as a few hundred dollars a year," he said. "Homeowners that are substantially damaged and fail to elevate their homes will be paying thousands of dollars per year for flood insurance."
FEMA might chip in
Homes that are substantially damaged — like the Vozzos' -- can seek up to $30,000 from flood insurance to help pay for elevation. Since passage of the $50.7-billion Sandy aid package, money may be available under FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program or through community block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The state will administer both programs.
Contractors, local government and FEMA officials acknowledge that home elevation is expensive and the process can take years.
The Village of Lindenhurst has had success obtaining funding, with 14 homes raised since 2002, Deputy Mayor Kevin McCaffery said. Two residents who wanted to elevate after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 still are awaiting approval from Albany, he said.
Post-Sandy, McCaffery said, "It is clear many of our residents want to rebuild and return to their homes."
The total cost of elevating, constructing a new foundation and other renovations ranges from $80,000 to $150,000, with the average about $100,000, said Guy Davis, president and owner of Davis Construction Building Movers in Blue Point.
Davis has had a front-seat view of the hardships facing Long Islanders whose homes have been substantially damaged.
Since Sandy struck on Oct. 29, Davis said he has had about 1,000 calls from people inquiring about having their homes elevated. So far, the firm has about 20 jobs lined up to lift homes.
"How many have actually come to fruition? And the answer to that is, not very many," he said. "The problem people are having is they just don't have the money."
Across the Island, local officials are taking different approaches to assessing Sandy-damaged homes, with delays in places caused by sheer volume.
Here is the current situation in Sandy-damaged areas, based on contacts with local officials:
Town of Hempstead: About 1,750 homes meet the substantially damaged threshold. The town doesn't have a number of people who have applied for permits to raise homes. Building Commissioner John Rottkamp said most don't have insurance money yet.
Long Beach: The city said 200 homes have been declared substantially damaged, and forecasts that another 200 will be. About 300 people have told the city they want to be part of a government grant program that would help fund home elevation. Ten permit applications are pending either to elevate an existing house or for the demolition and construction of new FEMA-compliant homes.
Freeport: Inspectors are canvassing neighborhoods, going block by block to calculate how much damage each house sustained. Joseph Madigan, assistant superintendent of buildings, said he expects at least 40 homes will require elevation to comply with the village flood-zone ordinance.
Town of Oyster Bay: Officials said more than 100 residents have expressed interest in home elevation and are seeking permits.
Town of Babylon: More than 300 homes have 50 percent or more damage, and 31 property owners have applied for permits to elevate, spokesman Kevin Bonner said.
Lindenhurst: More than half of the 200 homes that have been inspected have 50 percent or more damage. So far, nine homeowners are pressing ahead with elevation.
Town of Islip: Officials do not have a number of substantially damaged homes, but said they believe it potentially will be in the thousands. The town created a "Storm Damage Building Permit" specifically because of Sandy; of 37 pending permits, 30 relate to raising of homes.
Town of Brookhaven: Damage assessments are expected to continue for months. Spokesman Jack Kreiger estimated that hundreds of homes may meet the threshold for government-assisted flood mitigation; so far, the town has completed 20 damage assessments.
Town of Southampton: The town is waiting until residents apply for permits to conduct inspections.
Incentives and penalties
Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction and erosion specialist with Sea Grant North Carolina, described the federal flood insurance program's approach to flood mitigation as a "carrot-and-stick" method.
The carrot, he said, is lower flood insurance rates for homeowners that rebuild to tougher building code standards after a storm. The stick is the flood maps that, when approved by local governments, give them the authority to withhold building or occupancy permits unless a property meets updated flood map requirements, Rogers said.
BEFORE YOU HIRE
Preparation for home elevation requires significant advance work. Among the steps:
Select an architect and contractor.
Have the house and property surveyed and obtain an elevation certificate.
Get an engineer's report if your town or village requires it.
Seek official assessment of whether the home is "substantially damaged" -- that is, if damage is at least 50 percent of the house's pre-disaster market value.
Determine how high the home must be raised, calculated from FEMA base-elevation requirement plus a state-mandated minimum of at least 2 feet above that.
Determine what type of foundation the home will have. Options depend mainly on the existing foundation and soil conditions. They include concrete block on top of existing foundation and poured concrete on top of existing foundation with added beams, columns and footings in crawl space.
Decide whether to replace boiler or furnace and where these will be placed.
For homes with chimneys, fireplaces and/or decks, decide whether to keep these features or abandon them.
Determine the design, direction and materials for new, higher steps.
Get disconnect letters from utility companies.
Complete building permit application and get insurance and workmen's compensation documents from contractor to be submitted with permit application.
SOURCE: LIFT PROJECT GUIDE; BOULER PFLUGER ARCHITECTS, ISLIP