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Advice for the Sandy-slammed from LIers with raised homes

A photo of the home of Susan Cullen

A photo of the home of Susan Cullen as it was being raised in 2007. Credit: Steve Pfost

Homeowners in Freeport, Lindenhurst and Babylon who elevated their houses over the past decade to avoid flooding said time, cash and patience are key ingredients for those seeking to raise their homes post-Sandy.

Despite the challenges, these Long Islanders said they would not hesitate to do the same again for the peace of mind it brought as their living areas stayed dry when the superstorm hit.

"It can seem overwhelming going in, but we'd do it again in a second," said Rob Weltner, of Freeport. Weltner and his wife, Kim, raised their formerly flood-prone home 10 feet in 2002 under a village-managed initiative that tapped a federal grant to reimburse 75 percent of homeowners' elevation costs.

"If you can live through this last storm, you can definitely live through the construction knowing it'll never happen again," Kim Weltner said. "Especially if you had to live through Irene and then Sandy and warnings of yet more flooding."

Based on state figures, more than 4,500 Long Island homeowners, largely on the South Shore, qualify for public money to help with elevation after Sandy.

A few whose homes were less significantly damaged but can afford to elevate may see it as a necessary move to protect their property's value. Others have little choice -- raising will be required in order to rebuild in line with local and state building codes. For those in high-risk areas, elevating a home or business can dramatically reduce flood insurance premiums.

Town and village officials who have worked to get federal grants for home elevations warn that there is always more demand than funds available and that the process, which involves applying to the state, can take months, if not years.

Mitigation money available

Homeowners approved for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, pay up front and are reimbursed 75 percent of their costs. Applications that show a cost benefit -- for example, documentation that a property has made repeat flood insurance claims -- take priority.

Diana and Scott Keicher of Lindenhurst sought to raise their 700-square-foot waterfront cottage on Bayview Avenue West through this process after Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 brought as much as 5 inches of saltwater inside.

The couple filed the necessary paperwork by early January 2012, and the Village of Lindenhurst indicated it was submitting the Keichers' proposal to the state the next month. In June, the state responded with questions regarding the application, which the Keichers said they answered promptly.

The couple spent $25,000 to make the home habitable after Irene. Then Sandy washed about 4 feet of the Great South Bay through it. The Keichers are one of three Lindenhurst households still awaiting the state's response on their post-Irene applications for elevation assistance.

"I honestly expected to have construction under way within a year of turning in the paperwork," Diana said. "Everything takes time. I just never thought it would go this long, though I understand and now Sandy has made the state busier."

Her advice: "Do not reinvest in fixing your home. Be patient and psychologically prepared that while you're waiting for the bureaucratic process, another storm could come along. We hoped to be done in time for the next hurricane season, but that didn't happen."

Local officials cautioned that each homeowner's circumstance is unique. Without access to loans or savings, they said, some may well be forced to sell.

"Home elevating is not cheap," said Brian Zitani, Babylon Town's floodplain administrator. "And getting assistance takes time. This is a huge deal for all the South Shore towns -- this was our Katrina. Over the next four to five years, residents that do not elevate their homes will be priced out of these neighborhoods."


Cost to elevate is steep

Zitani said elevation costs range from $90,000 to $120,000 for each of the 11 homes for which the town has filed applications with the state. "Most are what I would call modest homes," he said.

Bill and Dede Borruso's 810-square-foot Babylon home backs onto the Great South Bay. The couple, both cancer survivors, had promised each other a renovation -- including a new kitchen -- if Dede, 53, made it through 48 rounds of chemotherapy.

In August 2011, a month to the day after the fix-up was complete, Irene brought 7 inches of water into their house. "You say to yourself, 'I can't risk that again,' " said Bill, 55.

The Borrusos had some savings and took a Small Business Administration loan. They knew they could save on flood insurance premiums if they elevated, and they didn't want to wait or rely on government help. They obtained architectural plans, engineering advice and even town permits to elevate.

Bill, who works for an electrical contractor, put in a lot of the manual labor himself and got help from colleagues with electrical work. The couple still wrote checks to contractors for more than $70,000.

The work was nearly complete when Sandy struck. The house remained a foot above floodwaters. Bill proudly recalled how the home caught the eye of state officials as they toured the devastation soon after Sandy.

"They couldn't believe we weren't damaged," he said.

Then came a setback. The couple was denied a claim of as much as $30,000 from their flood insurer to help pay for elevation. The reason: They did not first get a determination from the town that the home had sustained "substantial damage" -- damage amounting to 50 percent or more of the house's pre-disaster market value -- or that it had been the subject of repeat flood-insurance claims.

The town has since given consideration to an architect's letter on the state of the Borrusos' home before its elevation. Bill Borruso said he hopes to get the necessary documentation. Though it is the homeowner's responsibility to know and follow all regulations, the Borrusos said no one -- not their insurer, an assessor or the town -- made those requirements clear.

For homeowners, it is vital to closely coordinate with the local building department before embarking on elevation work, Zitani said.

This type of insurance claim -- known as "increased cost of compliance" -- wasn't widely made by Long Islanders prior to Sandy. Only 12 of 44 Nassau and Suffolk homeowners who sought such assistance to raise homes since 2008 had received payment as of the end of November, according to the National Flood Insurance Program's most recent data.

Of those remaining, 11 Nassau homeowners and seven in Suffolk still are awaiting payment on claims filed since January 2008. An additional 14 Long Island households made a claim after Irene in August 2011, but had not been paid by Nov. 30.

Leon Strobel, 67, a Vietnam veteran and a former manager for PanAm, lives in the "impact zone" at the bottom of Lindenhurst's South 5th Street, just off the Great South Bay. The 1938 hurricane, known as the Long Island Express, took a chunk out of the southern part of his street, so Strobel's home can only be reached via South 4th Street.

Strobel saw an ad about the village initiative in the local paper two days before the deadline in January 2001 and jumped. Construction began that spring and was completed by the end of June at a total cost of $68,000. Strobel said he was reimbursed $50,000.


Wanting to stay near water

He said he received initial advice to elevate only 3 feet. But Strobel, a licensed boat captain who said he has watched tides on the rise for years, got a village variance to go up 9 feet.

"That turned out to be a godsend," he said. During Sandy, a 71/2-foot surge hit the home.He wanted to raise his home "because I wanted to stay on the water," Strobel said. "But for a lot of people who don't have the money, it's just not going to be feasible."

For those who can afford it, he said: "You have to protect yourself if you live on the South Shore. You have no choice in the flood zone. . . . People are going to realize it's elevate or move."

Susan Cullen, 54, a physical therapist, lives on South 7th Street, three blocks east of Strobel. She recalled growing determined to elevate her three-bedroom cape in 2006 after repeated street flooding during nor'easters.

"It was logical at that point," she said. "To be flooded, obviously, it's devastating. Psychologically, I don't think I could have handled it again."

Like Strobel, she praised the village's management of an application to the state on behalf of a group of homeowners. She didn't find the paperwork too onerous. Construction lasted from September 2007 to January 2008 and cost $113,000, which Cullen had to pay upfront.

When Sandy came, Cullen fared well. Floodwaters came close but did not invade the house.

"I was hugely grateful," she said. Cullen estimates 30 percent to 40 percent of the neighborhood has returned.

"I've done some silly things in life. In retrospect, this was the smartest thing I ever did," she said of raising her home. "At that point I was just thinking, 'If I'm ever going to sell. . .' I was trying to protect my investment."

In Freeport, 22 homes in low-lying flood areas had been elevated by 2000, when Rob and Kim Weltner decided that the strain of rushing home with each forecast of heavy rain to haul belongings out of harm's way and set up pumps, was not how they wanted to continue living.

The word they got from people who had raised their homes was, "It's a hassle, but it's worth it," Rob said.

"We just weighed that against what we went through every time it flooded and how we were stressed to the max for every storm," he said.

They learned in February 2001 that the village's application was approved. Elevation began that October and was completed in April 2002, at a total cost of $76,000. The contractor remains a family friend.

The Weltners' house was raised 10 feet, 2 inches -- 3 feet above base flood elevation. It almost wasn't enough: Sandy had water "just trying to seep under the door," Rob said.

The Weltners now worry not for themselves, but for their friends and neighbors who are struggling to recover and rebuild.

"People are so freaked out right now. They just never want to go through it again," Rob Weltner said. "I just hope the stress they're experiencing now, combined with the financial pressures for many before, isn't too much. You don't want to see people have to leave the Island."

With Emily C. Dooley

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