Sandy Episode 6: New Flood Zones Aim to Keep Homes High and Dry

  • Transcript

    TOM: Ah, if everything in life were as easy as the ABCs. But for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the letters A and V take on a very different meaning. And they could be the difference between spending hundreds of thousands of extra dollars to rebuild storm-battered homes or not.

    A and V are the names of flood zones mapped out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Essentially, these zones tell building professionals how high a home needs to be to avoid being severely damaged by future storms. After Hurricane Sandy struck, FEMA revised these zones, as homeowners waited to learn how high their newly rebuilt homes would need to be. Important because when it comes to raising a house, the higher it goes, the more money it takes to get it there.

    In Bay Head, New Jersey, a small shore community on the barrier island, Jed and Christine Laird’s rebuilding efforts came to a complete standstill as they waited to hear what zone their home was in. But as it turned out, Christine was very glad they took their time making that decision.

    CHRISTINE: You know, we waited to decide how high to lift and how to do it. We learned that we are not a V-zone after all and we’re an A-zone, which doesn’t make a difference in the height we’re taking it to but it makes probably $100,000 worth of difference in what we’re putting under the house. No helical pilings. We don’t – we’re not on the beach; we don’t need to really be worried about wave action and that type of thing. But by waiting to raise the house and to determine the structure underneath, we saved thousands and – hundreds of thousands, potentially, on actually doing the rebuild.

    TOM: For the Lairds, waiting paid off because their zone actually changed from being one where water damage and wave action was likely to occur to one where that’s a little less likely scenario. The Lairds’ general contractor is Kevin d’Anunciaçao. And he says that determination had a big impact on how he approached the project and why it’s so important to all of Sandy’s rebuilding efforts.

    KEVIN: Well, down the shore, they have two zones. See, they’re in A-zone or V-zone. A V-zone meaning is there a break in a wave? Would a wave hit the house? A-zone, a wave would not hit the house. So this was – ended up being in the A-zone, so now we’ll do soil borings and then determine the foundation we’re going to use.

    TOM: Once the zone was set, the Lairds’ team next had to decide what to save and how exactly to save it. Their solution was a creative one: leave the second floor of the house as is and rebuild the first floor underneath it. And as This Old House Master Carpenter Norm Abram explained, the process happened in stages, making work on the home’s structure and mechanical systems a lot easier.

    NORM: Well, basically, they got rid of all the debris first. And we only jacked it up 4 feet because you want it to have a comfortable work height. You don’t want to jack it up 10 feet, where it might end up, because it’s very difficult to work at that height. So we jacked it up 4 feet, put in some temporary steel beams as a temporary foundation for the time being and then framed a new floor.

    TOM: Raising the home also gave Norm a chance to see how delicate the home’s structure had originally been, something not that uncommon to an area where many of the homes started as summertime vacation cabins and they transformed over decades upon decades to year-round residences.

    NORM: When I walked around the side of the house, I looked at the foundation and I have never seen anything like this: a one-brick-wide – one brick wide – foundation that was probably only in the ground a foot or so. And underneath many of the floor joists, around the perimeter of the house, somebody had gone – crawled into this 18-inch space and put a 2×4, a piece of firewood, whatever, underneath the joist so that they would stay up rather than collapse into the crawlspace. So it was time to fix that floor.

    TOM: It was time, indeed. And that’s, perhaps, one of the silver linings in all of this. The homes that are being rebuilt are being built stronger and sturdier and ready to withstand future storms. In fact, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we saw, time and time again, that homes which were more recently built to modern building standards stood firm while homes to the left and to the right were simply washed away like sand castles at high tide.

    Jack Purvis is an architect in Monmouth County, New Jersey and says he is not at all surprised the older homes didn’t fare very well.

    JACK: You can almost date the building type by the amount of damage that it has. Anything that was – that’s been done with the current UBC code pretty well withstood the hurricane damage and the water. But when you got back to houses that were pre-zoning or pre-code, they failed immediately. Or things that were done back in the 60s and 70s are having trouble to withstand this – the power of the storm that we had.

    TOM: The storm was devastating and the rebuilding stressful but the result? Relief. In Point Pleasant, New Jersey, the work to raise Carlos and Maria Santos’ home is just about done. And Maria says she is no longer afraid of what the future may bring.

    MARIA: We have our raised house. We have a safe house. Even if this similar storm were to happen, I don’t think I would be as nervous as I was in previous storms and so I’m very excited. We’ve made some minor renovations to the back of the house, so it’s going to be nicer, safer and I’m very excited about it.

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