Jeremy Patterson's first job in New Jersey was to lift a 2,600-square-foot home up 8 feet in the air.
The house had other plans.
"We've fought with this house because of the way it was constructed," explained Patterson, as he and his 16-year-old son, Greg, sawed through bolts to free the house from its foundation. "It was overconstructed and made for hurricanes. It was made not to come off the ground."
The Point Pleasant home flooded during Superstorm Sandy, but its foundation held fast.
One of the guiding principles for the Jersey Shore as it recovers from Sandy is to rebuild stronger — and higher above sea level.
Additionally, updates to existing FEMA flood maps have expanded the size of flood zones and increased the recommended elevations for many houses. Homeowners whose properties were substantially damaged during Sandy are required to lift their houses to those new heights.
That's increased the demand for the services of "house jackers" or house movers who can elevate these homes.
Patterson is currently moving his family to the Northeast from Louisiana to help his employer, Ducky Johnson House Movers, expand operations in this region.
A game of inches
With the final bolt cut, Patterson manned a bright orange board with pressure gauges and a large lever that controlled the 14 separate jacks that will lift the roughly 75-ton house in unison.
"Ready?" he called out. "Here we go!"
Inside the house, the crew had created a waist-high belt of wooden planks, secured to the home's studs with roughly 1,100 screws. Under that wooden belt, they placed steel beams, which support the jacks that will lift the house.
The jacks pushed against the beams, which pushed against the wooden belt, which lifted the house.
Slowly, the house began to levitate — just a few inches at first. The team paused to cut away anything that still rubbed up against the house as it rose.
"Watch that side," Greg warned another crew member. He's home-schooled so he can work alongside his father.
"When I was a kid, 5 years old, [my dad] would take me to job sites and move houses," said Patterson. "It's a generation thing."
Now in his 30s, Patterson has more than two decades of "jacking" experience.
"I think there's always a spike in demand after a storm, because people get flooded and they don't want to go through that again," he said.
He's scheduled to jack his own house in Slidell, Louisiana, in the coming weeks. It flooded during Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
With disaster comes work
Yet despite the destruction and stress of natural disasters, Patterson sees a silver lining: the economic impact the rebuilding process can have in communities.
"It's truly a stimulus package for the local economy," he said, noting that in addition to his services, repairing the home will require plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and other construction workers to put his home back together.
Homeowners Greg Moisan and Jill DeSimone anticipate it will cost between $85,000 and $100,000 to lift the home and resettle it on a new foundation.
As if confirmation of the current level of interest in this type of work, a Canadian reality TV crew has been following Patterson for the last few months, filming his house-jacking escapades.
But with so much to be done, Patterson worries it will draw inexperienced new workers who want a piece of the action.
"Whoever is running that machine should have 10 to 20 years of experience, not a plumber yesterday or a carpenter," he cautioned. "That's the problem with any natural disaster. Everyone becomes a professional of that subject real fast."
He also advises homeowners to ensure the company is fully insured and that they're using a unified jacking system, which synchronizes the jacks.
The house climbed 8 inches before the team stopped to build up towers that surround each jack to support the house. The stacked wooden blocks resemble a giant version of the towers in the kids' game Jenga.
"If you go to grab one of these blocks, they're 80 pounds, solid oak," said Patterson.
While the house rested on the blocks, the jacks were reset to lift the house another 8 inches.
The plan was to lift the house 8 feet.
"Got a little work to do today, huh?" laughed Patterson.
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