We’re going to have a castle in the air. Well, a double-wide trailer in the air. It’s all because of Hurricane Irene, a NY Rising grant, and the government’s bull-headedness.
It all started in April 2005, when our garage and crawlspace were first flooded. My husband and I live across the road from the Esopus Creek, just outside of Phoenicia. When the river crossed the street, I knew we were in trouble. We went out the back door, collected our next-door neighbors and their dog, and hiked up to a ridge that leads to another neighbor’s house on higher ground, where we waited out the storm. We returned home to a chaos of toppled, muddied possessions in the garage, which is our storage space. In the crawlspace under the house, it wasn’t too bad, just a quarter-inch of mud that dried out with the help of fans, and I managed to replace the one disconnected heating duct myself.
Irene came six years later and was much worse. We had raised our boxes of papers, books, clothes, and whatnot onto shelves two feet off the ground, but the floodwaters came up almost three feet. All nine heating ducts in the crawlspace were saturated, as well as the insulation, and the three inches of mud on the floor showed no sign of drying out. Thankfully, the mud line was drawn only a centimeter inside the front door — our living space was spared. Others in town were not so fortunate.
Our flood insurance paid for most of the repairs, which made us eligible for a NY Rising grant to elevate the house above the floodplain. The grant program is funded by FEMA, which also supports the flood insurance program, so FEMA has decided it will save money by paying for elevation, instead of repeatedly paying out insurance claims, since climate change is predicted to make such inundations more frequent.
Anxiety made me apply for the grant. The weeks of confusion when we had to figure out which conflicting advice to follow to put our house back in shape, the rising tension that arrives whenever it rains — I sought to avert the recurrent worry by getting the house out of the way of future floodwaters. We could never afford to carry out such a project on our own, so when I heard, the day before the deadline, that NY Rising was looking for takers, I threw together documentation and submitted our application, just under the wire. In the fall of 2014, we were approved.
Here’s what you can expect from applying for a U.S. government grant. It’s more or less free money, and I understand the government is under many constraints, so I’m not complaining, mind you. (Actually, we will ultimately pay back the grant through the requirement that we keep flood insurance on the house in perpetuity, even though we won’t need it once the house is risen above the floodplain.) But I thought I might prepare you in case you are lucky enough to qualify some day for bowing to the blizzard of regulations designed to prevent unscrupulous Americans from taking money they don’t deserve.
The paperwork has been annoying and time-consuming, but it’s probably necessary. The real problem kicked in after we had received an installment of funds for the design process — yes, an actual check. When we hired an architect, his surveyor discovered that the existing FEMA flood maps predict the 100-year floodwaters to rise seven feet above the ground level of our house — meaning we have to raise our house nine feet.
Irene’s waters came up to nearly three feet, the level indicated by the new flood maps — but we can’t use those maps because they haven’t been adopted yet. Even though the renovation would be cheaper, and the house would be more stable if raised only five feet, NY Rising is adamant that we have to use the maps currently approved. The state is sitting on the new maps while it figures out what regulations it’s going to impose on municipalities with regard to floodplain management. No one knows for sure when the new maps will be submitted to the town, but the latest guess seems to be August. Then there’s a three-month hearing period before adoption. We considered putting off the elevation till November.
But NY Rising has advised us not to wait. Who knows what might happen to the funding in this shaky economy? Who knows if the maps will really be approved in August? They were supposed to come out in 2011, but Hurricane Irene, followed by Hurricane Sandy, changed the whole FEMA flood landscape. And our deadline is next May.
So we decided to go ahead and look for a builder to do the work this spring. We already have a contract with a lifting company to bring their hydraulic jacks and raise the whole house so the piers underneath can be built up another nine feet. Then they will gently set the house back down. The tricky part is the attached garage, built onto the double-wide by the previous owner, a truck driver who wanted space to work on his Jaguar. I won’t go into the details of raising the top two-thirds of the garage along with the house and putting in a new ceiling, but it’s fairly complex. The builders who come by and look at the plans are too polite to laugh — they just shake their heads and sigh. Two of them have turned down the project. Two others have them have returned with compatriots to discuss strategy, but we have yet to receive a bid.
Meanwhile, the second installment of funds has been delayed because all the architect’s invoices say only “For services rendered,” and his accounting system refuses to spit out the breakdown of expenses that NY Rising suddenly requires.
Whenever I start to fret about these setbacks, I remind myself of the possible side effect. Maybe we’ll get to wait for the new flood maps after all.