Federal Emergency Management Agency grant allows couple to raise home 13 feet

Aug 22, 2011

The following article was published in the Daytona Beach News Journal on August 22, 2011: 

FEMA grant allows couple to raise home 13 feet

By Audrey Parente

The threat of a hurricane or a severe storm used to worry J. Gordon Whitley more than most people, and not without reason.

His home on Cumberland Avenue along the Thompson Creek was flooded four times since 2001 — three times during hurricanes, and once after a tropical storm.

But this year, for the first time in a decade, Whitley isn’t as anxious about hurricane season because his house has been elevated about 13 feet. Under a program by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he paid only one fourth of the cost and the agency paid the rest under a repetitive loss program.

“We realized how vulnerable we were,” Whitley said. “The amount of stress I felt as a father because my home was not safe was just torture.”

Expensive FEMA-backed flood insurance was little consolation each time the Whitleys watched tea-colored water from the Tomoka River’s Thompson Creek tributary slosh through their rooms and fill the swimming pool.

Whitley learned from FEMA he might be a candidate for a flood mitigation assistance program to elevate the house so he began doing research.

He ended up with an elevated home with 300 extra square feet of living area from the old garage. The elevation allows for a two-car garage and carport beneath the house. And he added an elevated deck surrounding the house for a great new river view.

Officials at the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which assists applicants, said anyone with FEMA flood insurance who faces flooding should look into the possibility of federal grants.

Scoring a grant isn’t all that rare. Four houses on Shockney Drive, outside Ormond Beach in Volusia County, and three residents of Stone Island in West Volusia have also recently taken advantage of FEMA programs.

Flagler County emergency management planner Jennifer Stagg has had no recent applicants, but her department is ready to help residents discover if they qualify. She said residents should “start now,” rather than after a hurricane, to seek funding if they believe they are eligible.

“Even if there’s not a funding stream now, we can have them in mind and work toward a funding goal,” Stagg said. “You never know when a funding stream will become available.”

Whitley’s project was no easy task, but he considers it one of his greatest accomplishments, after his family and business.

“It started with documenting the flooding events,” he said.

Ormond Beach planners prepared Whitley’s application around May 2010.

“Staff did a lot of the legwork,” said the city’s civil engineer, Shawn Finley. “The grant is actually in the name of the city. We are a pass-through agent for it.” The city receives a 4-percent administrative fee, which Finley said reimburses the city for expenses and staff time.

The completed application is passed to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

“By the time we have looked at the technical data and costs in the application and forward it to FEMA, applicants generally get the grant,” said William Booker, a spokesman for that division.

Helen Johnson, a mitigation planner for that division, said she evaluates flooding histories and makes sure applicants fit FEMA’s requirements.

“FEMA factors in the losses and possibilities of future losses,” said Whitley. “They look at the waterway and come up with a probability of loss and what their liability would be for the next 30 years. The outcome has to achieve a return on their investment.”

In Whitley’s case, FEMA determined it was more cost-effective to pay out 75 percent of re-elevating the house above the 100-year floodplain, than likely paying out more than that in future insurance claims. Whitley paid 25 percent — more than $54,000 — of the $216,000 bill toward lifting the structure. He also paid for such extra improvements as elevating a pool and adding hurricane shutters.

He and his family lived elsewhere during the seven months it took for Brownie Moving & Heavy Hauling of Fort Pierce, a FEMA-qualified company, to complete the inch-by-inch lift with strategically placed hydraulic jacks, and create new concrete foundations and supports.

The ground level space beneath the house can’t be enclosed as permanent living space because the lot elevation has not changed and could flood.

Beverly Davies, a Shockney Drive resident, also used the Fort Pierce company, but her project included bringing in yards of fill to also raise the ground level, not just the house. Davies began seeking a grant in 2009. Work began in October 2010. She currently is living on a boat awaiting completion. The inconvenience is worthwhile, she said.

“It’s not any more difficult than living through three storms, mold, mildew and not having electricity or toilets that flush, with water seeping up into your house,” Davies said. “I want the peace of mind.”

Because Davies’ property is in Volusia County, her application was completed and submitted by Larry Lahue, Volusia County Emergency Management plans coordinator.

“Each municipality is the grant manager,” Lahue said. A variety of grants are available, including some with a 90-10 percent split, FEMA paying the 90 percent, he said. Projects take about a year from application to completion.

While FEMA pays a greater part of the projects, there could be a potential added permanent expense to the property owner. Volusia County property appraiser Morgan Gilreath said he reassesses improved properties in January, the year following project completion, which could result in a tax increase.

Whitley said it’s all worth the cost and effort.

“I feel much more secure,” Whitley said. “There still are hurricanes, and no home is invincible, but I am fairly confident our living space is not going to be in a flood.”

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