Property owners along New Jersey’s coast have had their homes raised to avoid flood waters like those that damaged homes during Hurricane Sandy.
But the home-elevation industry, which became a booming business after the 2012 storm, is wrought with problems, ranging from safety issues to funding delays that put projects on hold and left some homes literally up in the air.
Before October 2012, home elevation was a niche business, said Steve Hauck, owner of SJ Hauck House Movers in Egg Harbor Township.
The industry has since swelled, buoyed by federal money and stricter regulations on properties near the water, but house lifting is a dangerous, expensive and cumbersome process.
Just last month, one of Hauck’s employees, Jonathan Fitzick, 24, of Ocean City, was seriously injured after a house he was lifting in Wildwood partially collapsed.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accident, which left Fitzick with a broken leg and head cuts.
In 2013, OSHA fined a contractor $8,000 for three serious violations after three workers were injured when a house collapsed in Little Egg Harbor Township.
“It’s definitely safety-sensitive work,” said Tre McAllister, owner of another home elevation contractor, McAllister Building Group in Somers Point. “The insurance that we have to have is so expensive, so that says it all.”
Another obstacle for contractors and homeowners is dealing with the state agencies that process the federal money allocated for home elevation projects.
McAllister said about 70 percent of house lifting projects his company does are related to Sandy recovery, and thus eligible for funding through state programs, such as the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program.
Dealing with the program, which is managed by the state Department of Community Affairs, is “awful, absolutely awful,” said McAllister, because of delayed payments and red tape.
“It’s hard to function as a contractor when you can’t get paid,” said Hauck, who said his company has lifted more than 1,000 homes since Sandy.
“The way the program was designed — I don’t think it worked the way they envisioned it to work,” he added.
Susan Marticek agrees. She works with residents affected by the storm as executive director of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group.
“The state grant was never set up to be the major part of people’s budget,” Marticek said.
Some homeowners get stuck with their properties hoisted on cribbing for weeks or months, waiting for money to come in and work to be completed.
“They get stuck in their recovery, and they don’t have enough money to finish their project,” Marticek said. “We’re now in year five, and, for a lot of people, they’re at a breaking point.”
“I’m fearful we will have a lot of projects that were started but not completed,” she added.
She also wonders about the safety of having houses on cribbing for long periods of time. Last year, a house on cribbing in Long Island tumbled over while the homeowner was waiting for funding to finish a home elevation project.
“Your house is very vulnerable when it’s up on that cribbing,” Maticek said. “With the bad storms, everybody gets a little nervous.”
The application period for RREM ended in 2013, but 2,622 homes are still in the process of being elevated, said Lisa Ryan, strategic communications director for the Sandy Recovery Division of Community Affairs.
Nearly 2,000 of those remaining projects are in Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties.
“DCA is diligently working to help each of the remaining applicants complete construction and close out of the program,” Ryan wrote in an email to the Press of Atlantic City, adding the department regularly provides support to those enrolled in the program.
So far, about $336 million has been spent through the program on completing more than 4,000 home-elevation projects.
McAllister said the state is not always to blame for stalled construction. Sometimes, contractors misuse funds, or homeowners are paid by the state but don’t use the money to pay their contractors, he said.
Marticek suggested inexperience with major storms may be to blame for problems with house lifting.
“To me, this is New Jersey’s first time at the rodeo,” she said.
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