By Donald Wittkowski
Sisters Loretta Harris and Alva Thompson, who live just a block apart in Ocean City, both suffered structural damage to their homes when flooding from Hurricane Sandy pummeled the barrier island in 2012.
Now, the two lifelong residents of Ocean City are grappling with the decision of whether to spend the money to have their homes elevated to protect them from flooding in future storms.
“I don’t even know if my house can be raised because it’s block construction,” Harris said of her two-story home on Haven Avenue.
Hoping to find out more, Harris and Thompson were among about 100 people who attended a community meeting Saturday about a federal grant program that could result in homeowners in Ocean City and a handful of other seashore towns getting money to elevate their houses above flood levels.
Ocean City is the lead agency in what will be a joint application with Sea Isle City, Cape May, Stone Harbor, North Wildwood, West Wildwood and Upper Township in Cape May County and Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
Known as the Flood Mitigation Assistance grant program, or FMA, it reimburses eligible property owners up to $198,800 toward the cost of their home-elevation projects. The program gives preference to homes in flood-prone areas that suffer from what are known as “severe repetitive losses” from storm damage.
However, the home-elevation program comes with plenty of strings attached. Further, there are no assurances that Ocean City and the rest of the communities that are part of the joint application will even get any money, officials noted.
“It’s a competitive program. Nothing is guaranteed in that grant,” Paul Miller, a project manager with the Tetra Tech consulting firm, told the audience during the community meeting at the Ocean City Tabernacle.
For fiscal 2017, FEMA is making $160 million available nationwide through the grant program for a series of measures to help address neighborhood flooding, including home-elevation projects.
Competition for grants will likely be fierce because other flood-prone areas throughout the country will be seeking the money, just like Ocean City and the other season communities that part of the joint application, Miller stressed. Miller’s company, Tetra Tech, is working with Ocean City and the other towns to submit the application.
Ocean City and the other communities have banded together in hopes of submitting a “robust” regionwide application to FEMA that would carry more weight than if it was submitted by just one town, officials said.
“The bigger the application is, the more strength it has with FEMA,” said Frank Donato, Ocean City’s chief financial officer who also serves as the town’s director of emergency management.
Homeowners who want to be part of the grant application have until Sept. 14 to submit their documents to the emergency management officials in their respective towns. They must pay a $1,200 application fee. More information on the program and the documents homeowners are required to submit can be found by visiting http://capemaycountyhmp.com and clicking on “2017 FMA grant program.”
Miller was unsure how long it will take for FEMA to approve the 2017 grant money, although he indicated that it will likely be a year or more. He noted that applications for a similar program in 2016 still have not been approved by FEMA.
Homeowners will have to be patient. Miller repeatedly stressed that property owners who elevate their houses before the FMA grants are approved would not be reimbursed by FEMA for the cost of their projects.
“Any work done now will not be eligible for reimbursement,” Miller said.
Donato told homeowners that they could consult with architects and construction companies about the cost and scope of raising their houses. At the same time, he urged them not to spend a lot of money or start any work prior to Ocean City and the other communities receiving word from FEMA about the grant application.
In the meantime, homeowners like Loretta Harris and her sister, Alva Thompson, are unsure whether to elevate their Hurricane Sandy-damaged houses. Harris owns a house at 627 Haven Ave. and Thompson has a duplex a block away at 632-634 Simpson Ave.
At her house, the 66-year-old Thompson had structural damage to the walls on the first floor. Harris, 72, suffered damage to her appliances, awnings and fences as well as the structure itself.
Currently, Harris has a construction crew at her house repairing the damage. The home was built by her late father, Sylvester Thompson, in 1959 and is where she grew up.
“It really looks bad,” she lamented of the damaged home. “It once looked nice.”
Harris recalled how floodwaters from Sandy invaded her home, knocking out her hot water heater and causing her front porch to shift.
She pointed out that some of the lower-lying homes across the street on Haven Avenue were flooded by as much as 42 inches of storm water.
“It’s nice living at the shore, but it can also be a challenge,” she said.