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.”