As part of Superstorm Sandy rebuilding efforts along the Jersey Shore, many people are elevating their damaged homes to lift them out of reach from future floods.
Some homeowners are making these changes based on recent revisions to flood maps maintained by FEMA; others simply feel safer higher above the water.
But lifting homes presents unique problems for elderly or disabled residents who call the shore home.
“I need access and I need support,” explained Richard West, a retired veteran with late onset muscular dystrophy. He requires a power wheelchair, a ventilator, and oxygen.
West owns a 900 square-foot home on a canal in Tuckerton, New Jersey, outside Atlantic City. He currently enters his house using a ramp that runs the entire length of the front façade of the home.
During Sandy, it took three firefighters to help West evacuate and he spent 20 hours at a shelter. And with many unanswered questions about how high he might have to jack up the home, two months after the storm, he decided he should move inland.
“Too many variables,” he said. “I need to know where [and] how I'm living and what kind of backup plan I can put in place.”
Without making any changes, West’s house will likely be a few feet below the height that FEMA recommends for his area. Therefore, he could have stayed in his home, but his flood insurance would likely grow increasingly expensive. Another option was to lift the house.
“If I raised it, it would cost $40,000 and another $30,000 for an elevator,” said West, noting that it didn’t make economic sense to invest so much money in a home that size and age. “And that only gives you one entrance and exit.”
Increasing the size of his ramp wouldn’t have worked either.
“Generally, the rule of thumb is you need one foot of ramp for every of inch of [elevation],” said Mary Ciccone, a managing attorney with the Disability Rights New Jersey.
Iif a home needs to be elevated eight feet off the ground, the homeowner would need a ramp as long as a basketball court. It becomes impractical very quickly.
Toms River resident Dorothy McDowell tried a home-made ramp years ago to get past the three steps into her ranch home. She's in a wheelchair after contracting polio as a child and suffering a serious car accident in the 1970s.
“I did have a ramp that my brother made me that went all round the inside of the garage,” she said. “As soon as we could, we got rid of the ramp and got a lift, it was much, much safer.”
After Sandy ripped a wall off her home, McDowell moved to an independent living facility, rather than rebuild higher and farther back from the water. She believes those changes would have required her to install an elevator, which was too expensive. Additionally, she worried about power outages.
Ciccone says it's difficult to say how many elderly or disabled people in the shore are in the effected by increased elevations.
For example, residents of Leisure Village, a large retirement community in Ocean County, will not be impacted because they're located farther inland and not in a floodplain. But people who want to stay in their own homes near the water might not be as lucky.
“Currently, many of the houses down in that part of the state are one story little houses that, for people who have disabilities or the elderly, are very easy to maneuver,” said Ciccone. “They have at most one step up.”
But she added there's another group who should be thinking about this issue: those second-homers who plan to eventually retire down the shore.
If in a few years, they decide their elevated home has too many stairs, retrofitting the home with a lift “may be less feasible, more complicated, and probably more costly,” said Ciccone.
Baby boomers may not need a lift or the elevator now, but if they leave space for it as they lift and rebuild, it could save lots of headaches – and maybe some achy knees – down the road.