Flood-prone houses getting a boost from FEMA

Flood-prone houses getting a boost from FEMA


WESTERLY — Thomas Retano’s house on Breach Drive has been flooded nearly every year since he bought it in 1999. He’s hopeful that by raising the house 3 feet above base flood elevation he’ll spend fewer hours and less money replacing floors, sheet rock, appliances, and anything else that has been ruined, over the years, by flood waters.

Retano is one of eight Misquamicut property owners to benefit from a recently announced $903,816 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant awarded to the town to assist property owners with the cost of raising their houses or commercial structures at least 1 foot above base flood elevation, the standard required under current building codes. The property owners will pay for 25 percent of the cost of the work, or a total of $225,954 of the grant.

The funds, part of FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, were made available after Tropical Storm Irene. Amy Grzybowski, the town’s director of planning, code enforcement, and grant administration, who worked closely with property owners as well as with state and federal emergency officials, on the grant applications, is in the process of submitting a new round of applications for money made available after Superstorm Sandy.

“The mitigation project is extremely beneficial because it elevates people out of harm’s way. What we saw after Sandy was that houses and structures that were built to code didn’t sustain near the damage that houses that were not elevated did,” Grzybowski said.

In addition to Retano’s house at 23 Breach Drive, the following properties will be elevated under the grant: 5 Lawton Ave., 29 First St., 18 Montauk Ave., 4 Benson Ave., 340 Atlantic Ave., 338 Atlantic Ave., and 88 Atlantic Ave.

The elevation projects will result in a different look for parts of Misquamicut, where many houses are built on concrete slabs. For example, one of the houses approved for a grant has a current elevation of 5.7 feet. Base flood elevation for the house is 13 feet. The building code calls for 14 feet for new construction. The property owner receiving the grant can elevate the house to 16 feet.

The grants will make possible what many property owners could not afford to do on their own, Grzybowski said, noting that the cost of elevating a house or other building can range from $75,000 to $150,000 or more.

Misquamicut property owners who registered with the town for email updates immediately following Superstorm Sandy were notified of the grant program by the town. The program was also announced on the town’s website, through social media, and by word of mouth. The small number of contractors who perform the elevation work also spread the word, Grzybowski said.

The town received 10 applications. One of the applications remains incomplete and one property owner was disqualified because he started elevating his house before his grant application was completely reviewed.

The applications were subject to a cost-benefit analysis by FEMA. The analysis accounts for the size of a building, its current elevation and exact location in the flood plain, and its likelihood of reaching the useful life of an elevation project as set by FEMA — 30 years.

Projects were viewed in the aggregate, meaning if one project failed to attain a high enough score in the FEMA ranking system, but enough others exceeded minimum scores, all of the projects would be approved.

Under new FEMA rules, elevation projects that are deemed to cost less than $175,000 can be submitted for FEMA consideration individually without being subject to the group cost-benefit analysis. Municipalities can continue to submit groups of projects to take advantage of the aggregate approach — a scenario Grzybowski said is likely for the new round of applications.

Applications not submitted for consideration for money made available after Superstorm Sandy will be submitted for consideration under a different, national hazard mitigation program, Grzybowski said.

The town is hopeful that some of the 40 Misquamicut properties designated by the National Flood Insurance Program as repetitive loss properties and the 12 properties designated as severe repetitive loss properties will eventually be elevated.

Repetitive loss properties are those that have two or more losses of at least $1,000 within any 10-year period since 1978. Severe repetitive loss properties are those that receive at least four claim payments more than $5,000 each and the cumulative amount of such claims payments exceeds $20,000; or for which at least two separate claims payments (building payments only) have been made with the cumulative amount of the building portion of such claims exceeding the market value of the building. At least two of the claims must have occurred within any 10-year period, and must be greater than 10 days apart.

The exact addresses of the 52 repetitive and severe repetitive loss properties cannot be released because the information is considered private under National Flood Insurance Program policies, said Michelle Burnett, who coordinates the state’s National Flood Insurance Program for the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency.

The town will monitor the elevation projects during the normal building inspection process. While the grant applications were based on a single quote, property owners must receive three quotes from contractors prior to starting work. The grants will be released to the property owners as reimbursement after each elevation project is completed.

As a condition for receiving a grant under the program, property owners must agree to maintain flood insurance on their property whether or not they have a mortgage. The flood insurance requirement will continue for future owners of each property as a deed restriction.

The elevation projects are expected to result in significantly lower flood insurance premiums for the property owners. The cost of premiums has shot as high as $54,000 per year, Grzybowski said. “The premiums are increasing based on risk. For people below base flood elevation, their risk is exponentially higher than for somebody who is already where they should be by code,” she said.

In addition to benefiting individual property owners, the elevation projects will help neighbors and the town by potentially increasing or maintaining property values. Also, Grzybowski said, houses that withstand floods will cut down on the amount of debris that can cause damage to other houses and ultimately must be cleaned up by the town.

Superstorm Sandy pushed 4 feet of water onto Breach Drive, a peninsula-like roadway that juts out into Winnapaug Pond and is bordered by the waters of the Weekapaug Breachway. Retano ended up with 14 inches of water in his house. He and his family had talked over the years about trying to raise the house.

“The affordability is pretty crazy. A few people on my street did it and I watched with great interest but we just didn’t have the money to do it,” Retano said.

Having been approved for the grant, Retano said he hoped to “save my house for the future and for my children.”

The town is conducting a meeting Thursday at 2 p.m. at Town Hall with property owners approved for the grants to review project requirements, including local zoning and building policies, as well as those set out by the state Coastal Resource Management Council.

Support Quality Local Journalism

Latest Videos