An Uncertain Future in Construction and Restoration Following Sandy

How homes and businesses are built or restored following Sandy is largely based on predictions for an uncertain future.

The first piece of advice Donald Watson has for construction and design professionals tasked with rebuilding homes and businesses along the Jersey Shore destroyed by Hurricane Sandy is “run like hell.”

If that’s not a viable option, the architect who wrote the book on flood mitigation, literally, said, consider climate science, plan for the worst, and design for resiliency. 

There’s a new reality property owners along New Jersey’s coasts need to account for, one carried in with the surging tide from Sandy. The planet’s climate is changing and how we build to account for it needs to change, too.     

At Belmar Fishing Club, spared from Sandy, miraculously, perhaps, save for its fishing pier, architects, engineers and builders gathered for a flood mitigation and rebuilding symposium hosted by KSI Professional Engineers. Building codes that have stood as the standard for decades were washed away like so many homes along the shore. The new standards have yet to be defined.

Amid new flood elevation maps, analysis of climate data, changes to permitting at the level of local government, those being asked to build back better are themselves looking for a bit of guidance.

Consider everything, Watson said, and go further.

“We’ve had a nice, quiet 50 years, now we are obviously seeing rapid return of storms well beyond what we predicated. The trouble with Sandy was that it was not on our radar,” the former chair of Yale School of Architecture’s Master of Environmental Design Program and co-author of "Design for Flooding" said.

“What I’m advising is that we look right at the climate data, as best we can, and some of the climate data says big waves, more storms, higher surge, more frequently.”

Sandy will come again, someday, and by another name of course. In some degree, hopefully, we’ll be more prepared for a storm, realistically, that has more potential for destruction than Sandy.

The storm, called the worst to ever hit New Jersey, shouldn’t be regarded as an anomaly, Watson said, and perhaps she’ll be seen as a harbinger, the first of what will undoubtedly be a more regular occurrence.

Climate change is real, he says. The result is more tumultuous storms and rising oceans. In the next 50 years or so, the sea level is expected to rise between three and five feet. That’s a conservative estimate. Watson said hydrology science is offering more dire predictions.

What that means in terms of construction is building beyond the estimates. No longer, he said, can architects, engineers, and contractors simply “build to code.” The homes washed out to sea along the barrier island, the buildings located in mainland neighborhoods that had never before flooded but were inundated with four feet of water after Sandy, they, he said, were all built to code.

“I’m looking at the next wave,” Watson said. “What’s going to happen in three to five years?”

A good place to begin, Watson said, is with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new flood maps. FEMA recently unveiled its Advisory Base Flood Elevations, which will likely be established and introduced as the new federal Flood Insurance Rate Maps in 2014. Officials with the agency said the maps should be used by municipalities to help set new code standards.

The maps cover 1,800 miles of coastal, tidal zones in New Jersey and were developed using scientific analysis of data accumulated over the last quarter century. The new maps, which did not factor Sandy into the equation, recommend that 194 communities spread throughout 10 counties consider raising homes anywhere between one and five feet above sea level on average.

Coastal towns are designated by one of three different zones. Each represents of the kind of flooding that can be expected during a century storm, like Sandy. The X Zone presents moderate flooding hazard and, though varied, mostly applies to coastal properties well inland from the ocean.

A Zones are high hazard zones that could flood, but won’t see significant damage unless there’s, again, a storm like Sandy. The final zone is the V Zone. V Zones are high hazard zones that would be impacted by ocean waves during a one-percent storm. In FEMA’s new maps, many towns like those long the barrier island are listed in the V Zone. 

A problem some architects and builders are running into is just how high to build. Pat Cronin, a principal of KSI, said his firm retrofitted a house in Belmar prior to Hurricane Sandy, raising it more than 10 feet above sea level. FEMA’s new flood elevation maps recommend houses in that zone be raised more than 15 feet. And, along with FEMA’s flood maps come local interpretation. In Sea Bright, he said, the town has taken the flood maps and added two feet.

Evolving and accommodating for rapid change has suddenly become the most crucial element of the home building process. Though there’s no way to know exactly what weather will bring, the best bet, for now, is planning for the worst-case scenario.

“I take FEMA guidelines under advisement,” Watson said. “And then I add.”

The best and smartest course of action when it comes to rebuilding the Jersey Shore, it would seem, is building up. And if New Jersey is looking for an example to follow when it comes to building up, it only needs to look south.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina crushed the Gulf Coast, a new construction boom dedicated to one job has sprung up. Simply enough, it’s home elevation, the process of jacking up preexisting properties, stabilizing them with new pilings, and giving them the lift to avoid flood water. Using flood elevation maps as guidelines, contractors have elevated more than 4,000 structures throughout the Gulf Coast since Katrina.

Rod Scott is a hazard mitigation and historic research specialist who has spent more than two decades recovering buildings from flood damage. For years his work has been concentrated in areas like Louisiana, with Sandy and the reality of more frequent storms and flooding, the northeast, he predicts, will become the next hotbed for home elevation.

And really, it’s a simple choice.

“We can either choose to be dinosaurs, and they’ll look at us in museums one day,” Scott said. “Or we can choose to follow this (new direction).”

In all, Hurricane Sandy damaged 15,000 structures in New Jersey and caused an estimated $37 billion in property damage. Some homes, like a number of those in towns like Mantoloking and Ortley Beach were damaged beyond repair, knocked off their foundations, carved up, or in some cases, washed out to sea. In those instances, the only option is rebuilding. But, for those who suffered flood damage but didn’t lose their homes, serious consideration should be paid to lifting the house up.

Structural elevation is preferred method of restoration because it saves existing structures. Though the process, on average, costs tens of thousands of dollars, it’s nothing compared to building a new home. It allows for the recycling of building materials otherwise destined for the dump.

But, home elevation, as an industry, doesn’t really exist in New Jersey outside of a few available contractors. Certainly there’s nothing on the level of what you’d find in the Gulf Coast, either. As the home elevation business takes hold, the proper attention needs to be paid to ensure that it’s done properly. 

The only solution to surviving is building smarter. But those doing the building need to be smarter, too. Following Katrina, private contractors along the Gulf Coast rushed to buy elevation equipment and, considering how new the entire industry was, were allowed to operate without much regulation. Houses were dropped and destroyed, six workers died from homes falling down on them.

By developing standards and regulations, Scott believes New Jersey can add a certain level of credibility to the structural elevation business. But, he cautioned, the steps taken by local and state officials shouldn’t be to undermine what will assuredly be a boom business. With Sandy past and another hurricane season less than a year away, work needs to begin now.

“We don’t need to limit this industry,” he said. “We’ve got a bottleneck of too much to do and not enough industry to do it.”

Official uniformity is key. Permitting and code enforcement could delay reconstruction and structural elevation efforts, Scott said, and with so many towns considering their options independently, a push should be made to develop some kind of cohesive system in regards to Sandy reconstruction.

Moving forward, many towns will have to decide whether or not they agree with FEMA’s newly released flood elevation maps and are willing to accept them. Municipalities that don’t accept FEMA’s elevation maps may cost their residents valuable federal assistance.

What residents and contractors alike should consider is the rise of the cost of flood insurance, Scott said. Federal flood insurance is $20 billion in the hole and thanks to expiring federal mandates flood insurance for home and business owners alike is expected to increase significantly in 2013. This fact was established well before Sandy’s arrival.

However, elevating homes a foot above FEMA’s flood elevation maps can save property owners 20 percent on flood insurance, Scott said, providing even more incentive to not just rebuild, but build up. 

A barrier to the structural elevation business in New Jersey is the lack of necessary equipment and machinery and companies to operate it. New Jersey has been impacted by severe storms and significant flooding over the years, of course, but the need for widespread home elevation hasn’t presented itself like it has in the immediate aftermath of Sandy.

Climate is changing; the sea is rising. Storms like Sandy, previously known as once-a-century storms, will happen with more frequency and coastal flooding in New Jersey, for as many decades or centuries as the coast remains, will be a fact of life for those who call those areas home.

It’s a new era for construction and design along the shore.

“What was impossible is now what I like to call the probable,” Watson said. “Aren’t you and I going to take action to respond to the probable? And the answer is yes.”

rod knecht January 02, 2013 at 04:21 PM
If the ocean rises 5 feet we won't have barrier islands. Why should anyone rebuild at any height? IBSP did great, shouldn't all the barrier islands be the same, state park land?
Nick Mastrandrea January 02, 2013 at 04:25 PM
Tom, what is the best way to keep informed regarding the bay height? I have poked around the Toms River web site and there has been no mention of it. I am in Silver Beach. Last time I was there the bay was flowing into parts of route 35 south and this was before any of the recent storms.
Spooner January 02, 2013 at 04:28 PM
Debra- this was pointed out last night on PBS News Hour, interviewing a reporter from NYT and an anchor on New Jersey Today about inaction on the part of FEMA. Do you remember what President Obama said when he came here: if you have any problems with Federal agencies...too call him! The same for the Governor and the legislature...apply state power over municipalities to get people back in their homes. Hard to believe that there are still people living in dwellings, still without electricity, according to what was reported last night.
Doug D January 02, 2013 at 05:38 PM
I think we should be very cautious about jumping to the conclusion that "global warming" caused the storm. The Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 pretty much decimated all of LBI, and the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 destroyed the AC Boardwalk, Steel Pier, and Heinz Pier. The most destructive hurricane in US history was the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, and the most powerful hurricane ever in the Atlantic was in the year 1780. So, were all these storms caused by global warming, too? It's more a matter that these storms are infrequent, so people living today don't remember them. The shore is also far more developed now.
Larry Nault January 02, 2013 at 06:41 PM
The lack of money (not FEMA appraisers and their verbal assurances) from FEMA for homeowners who purchased FEMA Flood insurance and are current with premiums, Is looking like FEMA is a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. FEMA, show us the money!
Chief Wahoo January 02, 2013 at 06:55 PM
NJ is in big trouble. Years of corruption and skimming and not preparing for an emergency. Well folks the future is now here and no one is coming to help. We have been had !
Favorite Teacher January 02, 2013 at 07:47 PM
Amon's team worked like a well oiled machine! He did an excellent job and I highly recommend him.
Favorite Teacher January 02, 2013 at 07:49 PM
IBSP did breach in several points during Sandy, including Tice's. Confirmed by the FR State Marina.
river racer January 02, 2013 at 10:46 PM
The impetus of the story is about mitigation by engineering and architectural designs, and at the same time raising the unspoken idea of retreat in a wishy-washy comment. One of the principles of contemporary land use planning grounded in an environmental analysis clearly advances that locating infrastructure and buildings out of high hazard areas when practicable. Given the settlement patterns along the high hazard "V" zones of both the barrier islands AND bayside mainlands that's society's question to answer. My use of tax dollars would be better spent buying out those structures and retreating instead of rolling the dice and see if it happens again. Of course, to do so would reduce local municipal ratables and cause those property owners a fit of anger. And for compensation it should be based on the value of the land as if it were located on a brownfield or other property having severve use limitations, because it is exactly that. This flies in the face of real estate appraisals and current cultural norms and at best could not be accomplished......unless there is a frank discussion and education undertaking.
charlie January 02, 2013 at 11:36 PM
Please don't forget to ask your county or town tax board to readjust your property if you cannot live in it or rent it. Monmouth County has an application online, not sure about ocean county.
barbara January 03, 2013 at 12:16 AM
thanks, charlie, will look into this. we rent our toms river home to our son and it is beyond devestation. they are homeless and we are working our butts of to try to renovate it, but i fear it will happen again. collected flood ins money, which bank is holding most of and releasing here and there. FEMA gave us NOTHING because considered "secondary home" son lost ALL furnishings and FEMA wont give him nothing, says he has to take a SBL. Wish Sandy would have just blown the house away. To have it raised i am sure would cost a fortune. i have two homeless families living with me, had 3. Lost 4 cars also. this is so devestating...
jim matyiko January 03, 2013 at 12:25 AM
Don't hold your your breath on the govt help. I was doing elevation work from Isabel and Irene storms. It took two to three years for them toget grants. Last year they stopped because they haven't passed a budget in 4years. If you have flood insurance And 50 percent damage from storm you can get 30k from the ICC program. Jim expert of va
Ann Sparks January 03, 2013 at 12:41 AM
My question is how is this going to affect the housing market in OC? I think potential buyers are concerned about several things including where on the flood zone the property will fall, how much the flood insurance is going to raise HOA fees, will the home be insurable and if you are dealing with a home >25 years older, how structurally sound will it hold with upcoming storms, especially if you live near water (eg bay).
Penny Lane January 03, 2013 at 01:22 AM
Mitt said fema is immoral
Ronny January 03, 2013 at 02:56 AM
My house is nice and dry. No flooding. That's what you get for moving by the water. Hahaha
Tom January 03, 2013 at 04:00 AM
Sorry you can't afford to live near the water, Ronny. I don't think it's funny that you're poor. You shouldn't get a laugh out of this storm's devastation.
donald hinman January 03, 2013 at 01:41 PM
Ronny you re a complete dope.
Kristina Papianni January 03, 2013 at 03:28 PM
This is by far the most intelligent article I have read regarding the entire Sandy issue. Our home was one of the first homes built on the bay back in the early 1900's. In over 85 years it never flooded and we are 20 feet from the water. We knew things were changing when we decided to put a BLUE STANDING SEAM STEEL ROOF (140 knot windproof) on because of the bashing winds (which were always fron the south and in the past 15 years shifted to the west)...and always loosing the asphalt shingles. After Sandy hit...the house was virtually gone...the only thing untouched was the roof...this says it all.....builf up...build stronger...look into new materials and new construction techniques...we're gonna need them
Doug D January 03, 2013 at 04:08 PM
Kristina -- Where is your house located? I'm so sorry it experienced damage. Something tells me that it is not in the locations where previous storms from history hit. The author of this article does not seem to have done a lot of research on past storms, such as the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 or the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, both of which decimated most of the Jersey Shore from LBI southward. Location is important. Sandy left the AC boardwalk mostly untouched, except for a few spots here and there. But the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 destroyed it entirely, along with parts of the Steel Pier and all of the Heinz Pier (which was never rebuilt). It also destroyed the Beach Haven boardwalk, which was never rebuilt. No storm probably just never hit your specific location as badly. It does not speak for hurricanes hitting our coast throughout history in general.
Favorite Teacher January 03, 2013 at 05:00 PM
Check the facts: the ocean has risen a foot over the last 100 years.. Carbon emissions have increased with the industrial revolution. You may not believe in "CLIMATE CHANGE" but that doesn't mean it won't affect you.
Don Smith January 03, 2013 at 05:04 PM
Something that I noticed with this storm is that in places where the beach was hardened there was damage on the south end of the hardening. Would it be smart to put a bulkhead at some level under the dunes before they grow to protect the redevelopment? I understand this was done in LBI.
Kristina Papianni January 03, 2013 at 05:57 PM
Doug...the house is located between Shore Acres and Baywood.... it sits on a pennincula totally unprotected on three sides (the EAST, the SOUTH and the WEST)..actually I think what is happening is a combination of several issues...there is global warming...and we were due for the "big one" AGAIN....yes there have been super storms before...the question is...are the conditions becomeing more suitable for these storms to be more frequent...here I think the answer is ..yes...but your point is well taken..
KMurray January 04, 2013 at 01:44 AM
Great article! The author states that 30,000 homes in NJ were damaged. According to the statistics in this article almost 72,000 buildings were damaged http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/11/hurricane_sandys_destruction_a.html Are there updated statistics? As a displaced home owner, I am wondering how many other families in NJ are now displaced?
Gary Mould January 04, 2013 at 12:23 PM
Install Jetty's
Melissa January 05, 2013 at 04:57 AM
How is my area in shore acres a v zone. We do not get waves. We r on a back bay in a cul de sac lagoon. (13 homes) the only waves are when people drive thru in trucks when it is flooded. We never had water in the house ever! I think the V is severe. Puts us at a point to raise 10 ft -- have to lift and put the house down somewhere while pilings r driven and we have nowhere to put the house.... So now what. Demolish a perfectly good house w recent addition?? No, just budget for $100,000 just to get to V standards. Never mind the gutted inside has to be revamped!!!!!!! Unreal, frustrated and sad!!
Brenda January 05, 2013 at 05:06 PM
Absolutely right, Doug. Global warming (or the new phrase used: climate change) is a COMPLETE HOAX. Folks should check out Climategate.com and learn what's really going. Don't fall for this scam. There's tons of info and truth out there, find it and show others.
angel January 05, 2013 at 08:44 PM
repeatedly called bob. they told me they would get back to me in 2 weeks. waited 3 weeks, called again, and they said, sorry we are not going to address on house moving north of route 37. they did not call, and frankly held me up 3 weeks, not very courteous(yes, I know they are busy). I would not recommend this company to anyone. Buyer beware,.
Penny Lane January 05, 2013 at 10:58 PM
Brenda you remember its a hoax when filling out your guberment fema claim
Jackthebear January 06, 2013 at 12:53 AM
I emailed Amon. I got a quick response from Kristina who said they were only working in South Jersey for now. (and here I always thought Bayville was is south Jersey). Anyway she recommended two other contractors www.myroncukhousemovers.com/ and www.atlanticstructuremovers.com/ I emailed Myroncuk and did not get a reply. It's been about a week.
John Haugh January 08, 2013 at 04:55 AM
I am a Crane and Rigging company based right in Brick, NJ and We will be Jacking, Moving, and Driving Foundation Piles in all of Ocean County. Our name is J. Haugh Cranes. Please reach out to us at 732-606-6166 or email us at JHAUGHCRANES@gmail.com. We have the proper equipment, jacks, rigging, and experience to get the job done right


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