To Avoid Flooding, Coastal Homeowners Lift Themselves Up

Driving through the low-lying community of Lindenhurst, on New York's Long Island, you see house after house lifted up on pilings, 12 feet in the air. Superstorm Sandy put Lindenhurst under 8 feet of water, and many homeowners lost everything. For many, lifting a house has become the go-to solution.

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A year ago this weekend, Hurricane Sandy barreled along the East Coast of the United States before making landfall in New Jersey as Superstorm Sandy. Communities that had been high and dry for as long as anyone could remember suddenly found themselves under eight feet of water. Post-Sandy, a booming business in New York and New Jersey has been something called house lifting. That's picking a house up and setting it on stilts or a higher foundation to protect it from a future storm surge.

Charles Lane of Long Island's WSHU reports the rush to lift houses has regulators scurrying to catch up.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: Resting on a grid of eight-foot pillars is a shingle-style beach cottage, classic to this part of the Hamptons. Stabbed through the side of the house is a 50-foot metal beam that Guy Davis is delicately trying to excise or, well, as delicately as one can with a tractor. Yesterday, two cranes used that beam to move this house to its new home, now above the flood zone.

GUY DAVIS: As soon as Hurricane Sandy hit, we were inundated with about 100 calls a day for two months.

LANE: That's insane.

DAVIS: Yeah. And, you know, everybody thought that they couldn't raise their house or it wasn't possible, and we put their mind at ease.

LANE: Davis' family has been lifting houses for over 100 years. Lifting this house will cost $100,000. The lifting process actually isn't that complicated. You reinforce the structure with those metal beams and use special jacks to lift it up foot by foot. Setting the house down, however, can be tricky.

DAVIS: You know, we have a lot of bog here, which is a spongy type of soil. And, you know, somebody can get in trouble if they don't know exactly the ground they're dealing with.

LANE: Here in New York and New Jersey, booming demand has a lot of people getting into the business of house lifting. The financial and emotional toll from Sandy's storm surge is fueling demand. But also, new FEMA flood maps will eventually double insurance rates, and it's near impossible to get a mortgage on a home that's below FEMA's flood level.

DAVIS: Besides the, you know, the storm chasers, there's actually people who are just starting from scratch with no knowledge and no background and just wake up and say, hey, I want to be a house mover because there's a lot of money in house moving.

LANE: The worst case scenario for hiring an inexperienced house lifter is they drop your house. Tom Gargiulo says this happened to his family's two-story ranch located on a narrow tine poking into the Great South Bay.

TOM GARGIULO: And it was like an earthquake hit. Even the deli two blocks away heard it. Neighbors come outside the house. There was smoke all over. And, you know, the only - I mean, the good thing that all of these men that were under the house came out alive.

LANE: Gargiulo says his wife's china broke during the collapse. The lifting company, whose primary business is steel fabrication, says Gargiulo is overstating the damage. The two are currently in litigation.

Before Sandy, two companies did most of the house lifting on Long Island. After Sandy, 14 new companies applied for home-lifting licenses in Nassau County. Neighboring Suffolk County doesn't issue special licenses for home elevations, but the county's Sammy Chu says it's looking at new rules to protect homeowners.

SAMMY CHU: What is unprecedented here is the capacity. There's never been quite the demand for this kind of home improvement. I think part of it's going to be a lot of people are going to have to wait. You know, there is going to be contractor backlog when it comes to these types of projects.

LANE: Chu adds that Suffolk recently doubled insurance requirements for house lifters to $2 million. In New Jersey, pending legislation would require lifters to complete an apprenticeship and also specifies equipment. What's spurring lawmakers into action is this: The home-lifting boom going on right now is just the tip of the iceberg.

Back out in the Hamptons, Guy Davis is showing off all the houses he's lifted recently, all paid for out of pocket, meaning the owners had on hand the $100,000 needed to raise the home.

What's happening now is federal Sandy aid is starting to filter down. New York and New Jersey are starting to send checks of $100,000 or more for people to improve their Sandy-ravaged homes.

DAVIS: So the new wave of calls we're getting are homeowners who have this letter but still have nowheres to go. They don't know what the next step is. I would say for the next few years, we'll have a pretty substantial amount of work to do.

LANE: New Jersey hopes to have its new set of requirements in place by the end of the year. New York regulators are still negotiating what, if any, new requirements to add to the Sandy aid it's sending out. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.

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