Eight homeowners in the Misquamicut section of Westerly are getting a pretty hefty Christmas present this year. They are the recipients of federal funds intended to help them pay to elevate their houses at least 1 foot above the base flood elevation level, so their chances of escaping serious harm when the next significant coastal storm strikes will be vastly improved.
The money comes from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant in the amount of $903,816 awarded to the town for this very reason. The 1 foot above base flood level is the height required according to current building codes. What all of this means is that the first floor of a home now sitting at sea level on the sand at Misquamicut could stand twice or nearly three times higher after the work is completed. Under terms of the grant program, the homeowner is required to pay 25 percent of the cost of the work, which by some estimates could run in the $75,000 to $150,000 range or more.
The goal of this Hazard Mitigation Program is to protect residents and attempt to reduce property damage as much as possible in the event of a storm similar to Superstorm Sandy and even lesser storms that can leave beach homes — at sea level — flooded and torn apart.
It has always been a common understanding that if one builds along a barrier beach one takes a chance on the damage that may be sustained. Such structures, while popular and attractive during fair weather days, are nonetheless built in the path of Mother Nature. There has been a great deal of development along the New England coastline since the last major hurricane to hit the region — the Great Hurricane of 1938 — wiped out entire communities, Misquamicut included. Some of these homes have been primary residences, but many were built as second homes, used only during the summer months.
For the federal government to subsidize the cost of elevating homes built on plots of sand open to storm-fueled waves and wind seems a bit odd, to say the least. And it seems to go against other government agencies’ directives to reduce development on such environmentally sensitive areas.
But it’s the common sense aspect that leaves us questioning what many see as a Christmas bonus for these homeowners.
We don’t harbor ill will toward anyone who builds a beach house, but we take issue with a program that uses taxpayer funds in such a way.
Taxpayer funds are used for many social service programs to help individuals and families in need, and we acknowledge that not all of those receiving help from social service agencies are in legitimate need of such help. But we find it hard to draw any parallels between the programs.
It takes a concerted effort to build a house on a barrier beach. And the sand that’s available for private use comes at a pretty hefty price. People may be forced into buying a home in a low-lying, flood-prone area based on affordability, but no one is forced to build a home on a barrier beach. Choosing to pay for such a lot generally indicates that the property owner has earned — or in some other way has come by— enough money to not just build a waterfront home but to take responsibility for any problems that may arise from building in harms way.
Federal money shouldn’t be used to pay for stilts to stand in the way of pounding surf. Let’s keep working to cure cancer and heart disease before we start subsidizing a house that can just as easily be built a mile inland.