By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Chronic flooding at the Ocean Aire Condominiums is so bad at times that stormwater literally surges as high as the windows.
But residents living at the condo complex at 43rd Street and West Avenue in Ocean City’s south end won’t be moving out. They’ll be moving up.
Funded by a proposed $3 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the condos will be raised nine feet higher to protect them from flooding that spills out of the adjacent marshlands and bay.
“It’s never been done before. It’s an unprecedented project,” City Council President Bob Barr said of the scope of the plan.
Individual homes at the shore often are built on top of piles or on a concrete foundation to elevate them above flood level, but the Ocean Aire project involves raising an entire complex of seven condo buildings – 52 units in all.
“It’s going to be a fantastic thing for us here,” Steve Sinibaldi, who serves as vice president of the Ocean Aire condominium association, said in an interview Thursday.
Sinibaldi explained that a construction contractor will pick up each building off the ground and then will erect a massive cinder block nine feet high underneath. The buildings will be placed on top of the cinder blocks to elevate them above flood levels.
The work is tentatively scheduled to begin in November and expected take three to four months to complete. If the timing doesn’t work out this year, the project will likely be pushed back until November 2021, Sinibaldi said.
Barr and Sinibaldi are being careful not to declare the project absolutely guaranteed because the $3 million grant still must receive final approval from FEMA.
“It looks like we’ll get the grant. It looks good. But it’s not final yet,” Barr said.
The Ocean Aire condos fall within the Fourth Ward City Council district that Barr represents. Since he first took office in 2016, Barr has been working with the condo owners on ways to protect their complex from floodwater.
“That area is the hardest hit area on the island,” he said. “The water literally comes up to the windows.”
Barr praised City Finance Director Frank Donato and U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, whose congressional district includes Cape May County, for their help in securing the grant.
“It’s an extraordinary effort,” Barr said of the different levels of government collaborating on the FEMA funding.
Sinibaldi expressed his gratitude to Barr, Donato and Van Drew for their help and also thanked his fellow board members of the Ocean Aire condo association and the residents. The board members include president Linda Shaneor, Bryan Wehler, Paul Lorenz and Chris Urban.
“It’s been a long time. We’ve been working on this for three years,” Sinibaldi said.
The condo owners had to kick in $40,000 just to make the application for the FEMA funding, he said.
Barr pointed out that every single condo owner at Ocean Aire had to agree to the elevation project. An objection from just one would have blocked it, he said.
“It takes a lot of convincing because it’s nerve-wracking for folks,” Barr said, noting that some owners were concerned that their condos could be damaged by elevating them.
According to Sinibaldi, the experts believe the project can be done safely. Already, a contractor, architect and engineer have been hired to oversee the project.
“It’s one of the biggest buildings of its kind on the East Coast (to be raised),” Sinibaldi said.
Sinibaldi blames the chronic flooding on a gap underneath some abandoned railroad tracks that cross the marshlands behind the Ocean Aire condos. He said the gap was created when a pipe under the tracks was either removed or was dislodged during storms.
A study is being conducted by a city consultant to determine whether it would be feasible to reinforce the old embankment for the railroad tracks to create a flood barrier. The consultant is also studying the possibility of building flood walls or gates or adding stormwater pumping stations to protect the south end of town.