Add hair-raising safety issues to the well-known problems of the house-raising response to Hurricane Sandy.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the partial collapse in December of a Wildwood house being raised to federal flood standards, which broke a worker’s leg and put cuts on his head. In 2013, the early days after Sandy, a house being lifted in Little Egg Harbor Township collapsed, injuring three workers and drawing an $8,000 fine from OSHA. Another in Brigantine went from bayfront into the bay.
House raising after Sandy already was known for being unpredictably expensive, drawn out and frustrating.
Since the October 2012 storm and the 2013 deadline for applying to the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program for aid, 4,079 homes have been elevated along the Jersey Shore. Yet more than three years after applying, owners of 2,622 homes are still trying to get to the finish line.
The $336 million spent so far through the RREM program sounds like a lot of aid (from the federal government, administered by the state Department of Community Affairs). But even if all of it went to completed house-raising projects and none to those still in limbo, it only averages $82,400 per house project. Many owners have found that’s not even half the actual costs of a raised and fully restored home.
The executive director of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group says the unexpected cost has left some homeowners with their houses up on the stacked timbers that lifting companies call “cribbing.” That adds another safety issue, since a heavy house perched on loose timbers is far, far less stable than one anchored to a foundation. Another high wind and over the house could go.
Safety issues, of course, just make the process more expensive — requiring extra efforts and margins of error by lifting firms and very expensive insurance.
Frankly, it’s a wonder there aren’t more problems with the house-lifting boom. It’s an industry quickly bulked up from a few firms lifting an occasional house to one expected to handle several thousand houses in a few years — and then possibly go back to being a niche business. The previous Sandy-caliber storm at the Jersey Shore was half a century earlier.
The bulk of the work is controlled and funded by government regulators, and house lifters say they complicate projects, cause delays and fail to pay in a reasonable timeframe.
With the state’s Blue Acres program buying out houses in flood-prone locations, requiring homeowners to lift their houses to be eligible for Sandy aid doesn’t seem like the optimal strategy. Perhaps government officials were worried that if homeowners could repair without lifting, pocket the aid money and sell the house or simply walk away, the house would be left in its vulnerable place and add to the demand for a bailout after the next storm.
But we wish homeowners had the option to take the aid, tear down the damaged house and build new. Many would have preferred to do that. A program provision like this could have reduced the moral hazard: Once Sandy aid was accepted for a qualifying house, the home would no longer be eligible for storm-related aid or flood insurance coverage unless it or its replacement was raised.
The Sandy recovery program must be finished someday, and when it is, the federal and state governments should make a careful study of how to better help property owners next time.