When the weather turns downright dangerous, like it did with recent Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, saving lives is the number one priority. But when the wind finally calms, the rain finally stops and the skies turn blue, we look at property damage to evaluate how bad a storm really was. Victims of lost homes and other property damage need to know how to repair the devastation left behind and how to prepare for building in a flood zone in the future.
You’ll find our list of tips for hurricane construction below, but first, we want to show you why we feel so passionately about preparing for hurricanes and flooding through proper construction techniques.
We talked to Matt Conte, our 3rd generation owner of Conte Company, who understands that storm repairs are about more than just fixing houses. It’s about coming together as a community to help put people’s lives back together and get things back to normal. As we keep those in Houston and Florida in our hearts and minds during the devastating aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma; and as we prepare ourselves for a less ferocious Hurricane Jose in the Northeast, we can’t help but think back to two storms that ravaged our own community, just a few years ago…
The two storms that changed the way we think about coastal construction in New England…
Hurricane Irene was the storm that hit the East Coast of the United States during late August 2011 and ranks as the eighth-costliest hurricane in United States history. Here in CT, Irene dropped a devastating amount of rainfall, washing away roads, bridges and anything else in the flooding rivers’ path. Some major highways were closed for days and more than half the state lost power. But Irene couldn’t compare to Sandy, which arrived a year later.
Hurricane Sandy (a.k.a. “Superstorm Sandy“) was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, affecting 24 states, including the entire eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. New Jersey, New York and Connecticut were hit particularly hard. All said and done, damage in the United States amounted to $71.4 billion.
Sandy completely destroyed thousands of Northeastern shoreline homes, and in some cases leveled entire neighborhoods. In cities that were completely unprepared for such an event, streets, tunnels and subway lines were flooded and made transportation impossible in one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world.
“At Conte Company, we remember all too well the damage that these two storms inflicted. We were there in the days that followed, surveying the damage and helping people figure out what to do next. As one of the premier pile construction companies in the area, we had a unique perspective and a service that was suddenly in high demand.”
There were lucky ones too… But even many of homes with little damage needed to be raised to comply with new flood zone regulations and insurance requirements. In some areas, the flood line was raised by as much as two feet, which may not seem like a lot, but when it comes to flood-prone construction, every inch can make a difference.
Some were extra-un-lucky… Many houses were built on deep pile foundations and survived both storms, but many did not learn their lesson after the first one. Only one year after Irene’s massive clean-up effort began, Sandy barreled through and again destroyed some of the homes that were just rebuilt. In most cases though, those homes were built on the same types of foundations that failed the first time around.
“We felt just awful for people that had to rebuild and lift their homes twice in one year, but these homeowners went through even more hell when FEMA ran out of money after Sandy.”
Financing from FEMA decided whose houses were fixed and whose were not…
Immediately after Irene, FEMA money arrived quickly and homeowners poured all available funds into new construction. Conte Company helped many dig out and lift their homes quickly with new pile installations and the region recovered relatively quickly.
But the story was very different with Hurricane Sandy which pounded the East Coast just a year later. At first, FEMA was very responsive to Sandy. As long as a homeowner’s claim seemed legitimate, the money came through and people could hire contractors to rebuild and lift their homes. But soon, Sandy projects started taking an unusually long time to get financed… FEMA was simply running out of money. After two back-to-back, very deadly, very destructive hurricanes, they could not meet their financial commitments to ill-fated homeowners who were building in a flood zone.
For some, there was a government program called the Superstorm Sandy Relief Fund, which tried to help a few homeowners in the direst of straights. But today, many who did not qualify for this program have homes which still remain condemned, with “NO OCCUPANCY” stickers plastered to the front door.
Rebuilding homes that are literally and figuratively “underwater”…
When homeowners in this region did not receive the funds they expected, Conte Company knew they had to play a big part in the recovery process, for the sake of the community.
“In many of Connecticut’s beachfront areas, many homeowners were first wiped out by Irene, then by Sandy and then by FEMA’s dried up funding.”
Homeowners were holding onto properties with negative equity, and banks generally don’t refinance a home in that type of financial situation. Conte Company knew up front there wasn’t going to be a lot of money for repair, but felt duty-bound to help a community that has supported their business since the 1940s.
Conte Company took it upon themselves to work with a number of general contractors. Ones they knew could do the job the right way, make honest recommendations to homeowners and wanted to give a little back to a hurting community. They were able to lower their own subcontractor rates in order to assist these hand-picked GCs, who working hard for Sandy victims, to rebuild some homes, and help some people put their lives back together.
“In some cases, we lowered our pricing more than we should have, but if we didn’t, the competition would come in and do an inferior job. We couldn’t have that. We wanted them to be happy again. With the repair and with us. But mostly with their lives.”
Many people are back in their homes today because Conte Company was able to help them with costs after FEMA’s coffers were empty. Unfortunately, Conte couldn’t help everyone — there was just too much damage. Thousands of homeowners who were building in a flood zone had to abandon their properties completely, as the cost to rebuild was just too high.
Building in a Flood Zone: How to construct a home that will survive the storm…
To this day, Conte Company is often asked to check homes that were repaired after Sandy by less-than-qualified builders. Many of the issues they find are (or will cause) significant problems when the next hurricane comes roaring through. Some of these homes’ problems were simply never addressed, not necessarily because those builders were dishonest, but more likely because someone didn’t understand, or care, what the real problems actually were.
In the wake of the most recent superstorms to slam the U.S., there is no better time to discuss these issues which apply to both new and existing construction. As experts in the industry, we thought it makes sense to give people our best advice and recommendations for hurricane-proofing your new home, or repairing your old one.
The 5 Most Important Tips for Hurricane-Proof Home Construction
1. Hire a Reputable Structural Engineer
No project is ever the same and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Trust your project engineer to make appropriate recommendations about your home’s foundation. Don’t have one you can trust? We work with plenty and are happy to refer you.
2. Lift Your Home Above the Floodline
Building in a flood zone can be somewhat nerve-racking for a homeowner, but you can greatly limit your potential for damage simply by making sure it’s out of the floodwater’s way. Most of the real damage is done by high waters and the pounding surf of wave action, not by high winds.
3. Use Helical Piles for Deep Foundation Support
As some of the most versatile pile types around, helical piles can be installed in just about any environment. When properly designed, helical piles can also provide:
- excellent lateral load to resist winds in high-velocity zones
- substantial uplift capacities to keep your house from floating away
- exceptional scour support incase of soil erosion below your house
- and here’s some more info on helical piles
4. Use Piles to Support Every Structure on the Property
Grade beams are a great way to connect all the piles for each structure to support the load with an interconnected system of foundations. Grade beams are installed below grade to create a solid foundation spanning from pile to pile. Every external structure should be connected, including the deck, garage, pool, stairs, patio, etc.
5. Don’t Cut Corners, Don’t Use Band-Aids
If you are building in a flood zone, remember one thing…
“Doing it once the right way, means you don’t have to do it twice later. Even if you do it cheap twice, it will end up being more expensive than doing it right the first time.”