Careful design leaves house unscathed in storm

The Philadelphia InquirerApril 5, 2013 

SEA BRIGHT, N.J. -- When Hurricane Sandy roared ashore last fall, causing billions of dollars in damage and ruining tens of thousands of homes, Bernard Bertino felt like the luckiest guy on his block. His relatively new house was the only one spared.

Now the property, about 350 feet from the beach in this tiny resort, has become a poster child for the Federal Emergency Management Agency as it highlights the best ways to rebuild.

"I think maybe a shingle came off. But all around me ... devastation," said Bertino, who had lived in the townhouse for about 14 months before the Oct. 29 storm.

While he felt bad for his neighbors, he said, he learned a powerful lesson about sound design and efficient construction when four feet of water surged over the narrow barrier-island community.

Bertino's home, designed by Spring Lake, N.J., architect Paul Damiano and constructed by builder Ray Guzman, who lives in the other half of the duplex, is among various Jersey Shore properties studied by FEMA and other government agencies for examples of what to do right.

"I know (my builder and architect) looked at the FEMA website and wanted to go over and above the requirements," Bertino said.

"It turned out to be a very smart thing for them to have done. We ended up being very lucky."

But Bertino and others say it was not merely luck that saved the house.

When the roiling waves hit his and Guzman's adjoining unit, the water flowed into flood vents that had been installed in the ground-level garage foundation. The vents al

lowed the floodwaters to flow easily through the structure, minimizing the pressure from the force of the waves.

Two feet of additional elevation, called freeboard, added to the design of the house, also helped keep the house high and dry. The utilities -- electricity, plumbing, heating and cooling -- had been built into the second and third floors and were safe.

"Initially we had a crawl space in the design," Damiano said. "But since we weren't going to run any ductwork on the first floor, we decided to put a slab in the garage. It's a good thing ... because the ductwork would have been underwater otherwise."

The loss of a single roof shingle was caused by airborne debris from a neighbor's house, Damiano said.

FEMA has cited the lessons from Bertino's house and other examples of sound construction in a free handout for builders and do-it-yourselfers called "The Home Builder's Guide to Coastal Construction: Technical Fact Sheet Series." Information in the guide, and in a companion coastal construction manual, was updated after Sandy. Both handouts can be downloaded from FEMA's website, according to spokeswoman Robin E. Smith.

Smith said the agency hopes the information -- including how to properly site a building, the kinds of windows to use, and requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program -- will be widely adopted during reconstruction in the coming months. Some of the proposals may become flood-insurance requirements as new flood-zone maps and regulations are approved, officials said.

FEMA is in the middle of a contentious debate with state and local officials and property owners over revisions to flood-zone designations that could significantly affect the insurance premiums property owners will have to pay in the future. In the meantime, the guidelines in its handouts aim to improve the stability of buildings in all coastal environments, especially areas subject to excessive wind and repeated flooding, officials said.

Among the homes surrounding Bertino's are numerous examples of what not to do. Hundreds of Sea Bright's quaint cottages -- many built at sea level as the town evolved from an 1840s fishing village into a popular family resort -- were reduced to rubble by Sandy. Even some of the homes that had been built more recently -- and on pilings -- ended up with significant damage.

The loss of so many properties, and impending insurance regulations that could force many homes to be razed or rebuilt atop tall pilings, has some residents worried the unique character of New Jersey's beach towns will be erased.

That's the puzzlement property owners are facing up and down the Shore, said Ralph Busco, who operates Alison Paul Builders in Brigantine, N.J.

"The new codes do work. They do save homes when there are storms and flooding," Busco said. "But the challenge is going to be applying these codes while keeping the properties affordable for people and keeping the character of the place at the same time."

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