In the five years since Superstorm Sandy pounded and eviscerated many homes along the Jersey shoreline, well over $300 million of the $1.34 billion in federal funds allocated by New Jersey for Sandy cleanup has been spent on home elevation projects. In fact, at last public count, more than 4,000 homes in the state have been elevated to meet post-Sandy flood zone codes.
The money is coming from the RREM Program (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation), which provided grants to repair or rebuild the primary residences of homeowners affected by the surge from the October 2012 storm. However, even though the RREM application process deadline was in 2013 (one year after the storm), there are close to 3,000 more homes still in the process of being elevated, according to the Sandy Recovery Division of Community Affairs. Of those almost 2,000 are located in Cape May, Atlantic and Ocean counties.
Jason DeVooght, co-owner of DeVooght House Lifters of Brick, and his team have personally elevated 1,475 of the houses impacted by the storm in New Jersey and 225 in New York. He said, “We are still elevating every day. This a going to be a 20-year recovery.”
House lifting isn’t easy, but it’s something DeVooght and his team do well — and often. DeVooght, 44, and his brother, David, took over the family business from their dad, Don, who founded the company in 1964. Both brothers have been on-the-job, or at least on the scenes of house elevations, since they were kids. “It’s all we’ve ever done — lifting and moving buildings,” DeVooght said.
With 60 employees, DeVooght House Lifters, which is coincidentally located close to the Mantoloking Bridge, known as the “Ground Zero” of Sandy, is involved in about 55 to 65 house elevations at any one time. The company has operations in Texas at the moment, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. In the couple of years after Sandy, he said, the company was involved in 125 elevations at all times in New Jersey and New York.
Each town in New Jersey has its own regulations for everything; flood protection is certainly no exception. When a house is located in a flood zone, it must be elevated to the Flood Protection Elevation (FPE) level required by the municipality. When the building meets the FPE, DeVooght explained, the living area will be well above any area susceptible to flooding.
There are several techniques used to lift a house to elevate it properly, but most of the time, DeVooght said, the house is either lifted and the foundation is either rebuilt or extended or the house is left in place and another floor is added to the top of the house to be used as the new living space.
The elevation process is complex, DeVooght said, and noted that this is not a trade that can be learned in school. It requires on-the-job training to learn how to properly separate a house from its foundation, raise it on hydraulic jacks and make sure it’s secured with temporary supports while the foundation or other new construction is completed.
The price tag on a house elevation is about $150,000 and that’s the maximum the RREM program paid out. “Many people who lived full time in those homes got lucky. They qualified for money from RREM and were able to have their homes elevated. Unfortunately, not everyone has been so fortunate. If you had a second home on the shore, or you rented out your place there, you likely didn’t qualify for the funds necessary to do the elevation,” DeVooght said.
“For those people, it’s been an expensive and frustrating process, to say the least.”
Thankfully, homeowner Tony Kono was one of the lucky ones. His house was one of the closest located to the Mantoloking Bridge — less than a mile away, in fact — when the breach occurred at the point where the ocean met the bay on Oct. 29, 2012. This bridge is where some of the iconic images were captured after Sandy.
Kono and his wife, Debra, moved into their home in the spring of 2011. The home, built in 2007, was sitting at a 7 foot base flood elevation at the time,” We didn’t even think we needed flood insurance. Thankfully, our mortgage company disagreed and insisted on it.”
The Konos’ home suffered only 20 percent damage (far less than their neighbors who had 85 percent damage). Still, the couple had to move out temporarily until the utilities were restored.
“We got a letter from FEMA saying there was money that we could apply for, a $150,000 grant from RREM to elevate our house,” Kono recalled. “We hired DeVooght and they were amazing. I was never even aware a house could be elevated like that. Watching them lifting the home, building the new foundation and lowering it down. It was an incredibly synchronized operation. It was like watching a ballet.”