How building codes are being used to prepare for the next hurricane

 Long Beach Township construction official Dane Sprague. (Scott Gurian/NJ Spotlight)

Long Beach Township construction official Dane Sprague. (Scott Gurian/NJ Spotlight)

As the construction official in a barrier island community that was heavily damaged by Sandy, Dane Sprague has had to do a lot of explaining and answering of questions these past 18 months.

As in many shore towns, some residents of Long Beach Township are confused, unhappy, or overwhelmed with the new FEMA flood maps and the increasing flood insurance rates they’ll have to pay. And as the one who often has to deliver the news that they’ll have to spend thousands of dollars to elevate their homes and make modifications to bring them up to code, Sprague has been working his hardest to give people accurate information and dispel whatever rumors they may have heard.

It’s a difficult situation that’s taking place up and down the coast, pitting the desires of homeowners to repair their damages and return to pre-storm life as quickly as possible against the need to make potentially costly changes so they’re less vulnerable to future storms. And at the end of the day, it’s largely up to municipal construction officials like Sprague to enforce state and federal standards on the local level and ensure that residents are fully in compliance with all National Flood Insurance Program regulations.

As hard as it is, Sprague said he’s been surprised at how cooperative most residents have been. “We were mostly met with people who were looking to get information, and they wanted to expedite the process. People seemed to pull their pants up and get to work,” he said.

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Some were initially frustrated, but they seemed to settle down once he explained the reasoning behind the new building requirements. And a surprising number of homeowners have taken a great interest in the process, eager to learn all they can about exactly what they need to do.

In the aftermath of Sandy, Sprague said he’s actually gotten several phone calls from residents grateful he made them raise their homes when they did improvements a few years back, since the new elevations protected them from flooding during the storm. And he said that while some people are “rolling the dice” and taking their chances because they think Sandy was a one-time event, about the same number are listening to his advice and taking greater precautions.

“I’ve had people ask, ‘What’s the minimum height I need to go? That’s all I want to go,’ he said. “And then I’ve had probably an equal number of people say, ‘Tell me how high I can go cause I don’t want to get even close to going through this again.’ We’ve seen the full gamut of emotion.”

Rather than try to elevate their old, Cape-Cod-style homes from the 1940s and ’50s, some Long Beach Township residents with the financial means have even opted to demolish their old homes and start from scratch, building a new house on piers in cases where they were under no obligation to do so.

Still, for all the positive signs, Sprague said his years of experience have taught him to keep an eye out for problems cropping up when homeowners try to cut corners.

“Sometimes the homeowner sees something, and they don’t like it. They talk to the builder,” he said. “They ask, ‘Hey, can you change this? I don’t want to walk up 10 stairs every time I want to go in my house. I just want to go up five stairs. Can you make the first floor lower?'”

“The homeowner writes the check,” he added. “You don’t see many builders tell homeowners no. A lot of times when they should, they don’t. My hope is they would call us.” In other instances, he and his building inspectors have uncovered problems while conducting resale inspections before a house is sold.

One common scenario involved homes elevated on piers in the velocity zone on the FEMA flood maps. Since this area is most prone to damaging storm surges, the rules dictate that any area below the elevated structure cannot be used as a living area, though lightweight walls can be erected to enclose a garage.

Sprague says the problem often grows over time, with residents first putting a couch and a ping pong table in the space, and before they know it, they’re adding carpeting, extra walls and entire new rooms to their houses.

“Your four-bedroom house becomes a six- or seven-bedroom house, and four bathrooms become five bathrooms,” he said, noting that he’s had to make residents rip out the extra rooms, which has sometimes caused home sales to fall through. “We don’t like it. The assessor doesn’t like it, and it’s not legal for it to be there.”

Though such actions obviously don’t go over too well with the homeowners, Sprague said it’s in their best interest that all the proper procedures are followed. Years from now, if a resident goes to sell their house, he said they’re sure to be questioned about damage they sustained during Sandy.

“You have one of two answers,” he said. “‘Well, we fixed it ourselves, but it came out great,’ or you can say, ‘Here’s copies of all the permits we obtained, all the required inspections. A licensed electrician was on the job. A licensed plumber was on the job.’ A potential buyer is probably much more at ease — I know I would be — if I saw that the proper steps were taken in the repair process rather than some yin-yang homeowner winging it on a weekend.”

Though a full recovery is still months or even years away, all around Long Beach Township, there are signs of progress. Nearly every day, Sprague said one old house gets torn down somewhere, and a new one gets build that’s more modern and up to current codes.

“Next time we get a storm, there’s going to be that many fewer homes that have the potential to be damaged,” he said. “I’m looking for the next one to be boring around here. That would be nice.”


Scott Gurian is the Sandy Recovery Writer for NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, which makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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