When Penny Tannenbaum and Michael Aronsohn returned to their Coconut Grove home after Hurricane Irma, one of the first things they saw were their family photos strung up throughout their house, still dripping from the storm surge.
A kind neighbor checked in on their 3-bedroom 2-bathroom home and found the pictures — of babies and birthday parties and summer vacations — soggy from the two feet of murky seawater that swept through their home. Sadly, most wound up ruined anyway.
That’s when Tannenbaum, 64, thought, “I can’t go through this again.”
Their 1926 home had experienced major flooding once before, during Hurricane Andrew two decades earlier. Both times, the cleanup and rebuilding was a long, expensive slog. They don’t want to move to higher ground. They like their home, the neighborhood and their neighbors. And with sea levels on the rise, they knew their house, sandwiched between a canal and Biscayne Bay, is bound to face more of the same in the future.
Tannenbaum researched a potential solution — and found it in another state. Louisiana State University built an affordable project home designed to survive coastal flooding called The LaHouse. It inspired her to adopt an unusual strategy for older South Florida suburban homes — jack the whole place high above the ground so floodwaters flow under, not through.
But it turns out the single most obvious solution to sea rise — raising a home above flood levels — isn’t that simple. For starters, when Tannenbaum first started looking into home elevation, she couldn’t get a straight answer on whether Miami codes would even allow her to do it.
As she discovered, the challenge of elevating an existing coastal home in South Florida remains daunting, not to mention expensive. They’ve been putting places up on stilts in the Florida Keys for decades, but on the coastal mainland, much of the housing stock goes back even further. Some communities have demanded higher ground floor elevations for new construction, but the codes for elevating older homes are complicated and unclear in many cases.
The story is a lot different in some hurricane zones. For instance, in Mandeville, Louisiana — a small city north of New Orleans on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain — 75 percent of the homes are elevated, said Roderick Scott, a contractor who specializes in elevating historic structures.
After years of batterings from storm after storm, he said the town funneled its federal disaster dollars toward elevation projects. In Florida, no counties are planning to use their post-hurricane Federal Emergency Management Agency money on single-family home elevations, he said — with the possible exception of Monroe County.
“We just don’t know why Florida is so behind everybody else,” Scott said. “It’s 60 years before the toilet stops working. It’s two mortgage cycles away.”
Scott predicts elevating homes will become a major industry in the next decade, putting a trillion dollar projection on it. The amount of work needed on Miami Beach alone, he said, would keep five companies busy day and night for 20 years. His firm is currently evaluating four homes in Miami Beach for elevation. He gave a presentation on the benefits of elevation to the city of Miami that he said was met with “great interest.”
Tannenbaum said she didn’t get the same reception when she first started inquiring not long after Irma.
She heard the same thing from contractors, neighbors and members of Miami’s Sea Level Rise committee. No, it’s not possible. They said her house was too old, height restrictions would block her two-story home from rising any higher and if she did elevate, she’d have to fix other things. She showed up at planning board meetings and emailed city officials. She even asked the soon-to-be mayor at a campaign event about the impact of elevation on property taxes.
Finally, seven months after Irma sent storm surge from a nearby canal over the street and into her home, Tannenbaum has her answer.
“There’s nothing that is strictly prohibiting it now,” said Jeremy Calleros Gauger, deputy director of Miami’s planning and zoning department. But, “there’s nothing in the code currently that streamlines that process. There’s certain things that can be clarified to make it easier.”
“If she came in with a permit there would be nothing standing in her way,” he said.
Miami, he said, has been working on clarifying its building codes to make it easier for homeowners to explore the options of improving resiliency from sea rise and storm surge — a project he said has been in the works since before Irma.
With sea levels projected to rise by around a foot or two by 2060, according to the unified sea level rise projection from the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, it’s likely that an increasing number of homeowners will consider what Tannenbaum is doing.
When faced with the uncertainties and complications of elevating an older home, of course, many homeowners would think the simpler answer is demolishing and rebuilding at a higher elevation. The shiny, white rectangular modern homes that have started to pop up around the city, including on Tannenbaum’s street, are an example — all built on fill and foundations that have been pushed upward to account for higher predicted flooding threats.
But both she and the city are on the same page on one aspect of climate resiliency: The goal of preserving the original, unique designs in the Grove and other older areas.
“We’re trying to make sure this gets done without changing the character of the community, that they are done in a way that is an enhancement,” said David Snow, Miami’s chief of urban design.
What works on the waterfront in the Florida Keys might not be suitable for a suburban neighborhood, said Calleros Gauger.
“What we’d like to avoid is the Keys, where everything just looks like stilts.”
Preservation was on Tannenbaum’s mind when she reached out to Scott, whose work in Louisiana with his firm, Ducky Johnson, has gotten him dubbed the “minister of mitigation” by some in the construction resiliency industry.
He visited Tannenbaum and took measurements of her house and confirmed it was a candidate for elevation. He estimates that lifting her home would cost about $230,000, slightly more than the $200,000 FEMA gave her to repair her two feet of flood damage. That estimate will likely change once Tannenbaum decides exactly how much she wants to lift her house.
That’s a hefty price tag without help. It likely isn’t coming from FEMA, which requires a home to be flooded three times before it becomes available for elevation grants, or from the city, which has elevating single family homes low on its list of priorities for its federal hazard mitigation money. Tannenbaum has only endured two floods.
Most of the elevation process is just like any other construction project, Scott said. Homeowners need an elevation certificate, soil samples, a set of plans, estimates from contractors, permits and, possibly, bank loans.
Workers then examine the foundation of the building to figure out the next step. If it’s in good shape and isn’t made of concrete mixed with saltwater or sand, it’s jacked up along with the house on hydraulic lifts. A new foundation designed to match the old one is built underneath, and all the “guts” of the home — the wiring, the plumbing, the gas — are reconnected.
One factor not considered in the elevation process is wind. Wind strength during hurricanes dramatically increases with height, so some worry that elevating a home that’s only built to lower or older standards could set an owner up for another kind of disaster — wind damage.
“Our foundations work as hard to keep the building from flying away as they do to keep it from sinking into the ground.” Calleros Gauger. “We have a much higher wind load standard than they do in Louisiana and that has to be part of the equation.”
Scott said his firm always recommends the structure’s roof gets a hurricane retrofit when its elevated, but wind considerations aren’t mandatory when homes are lifted. He sees this as a flaw that needs to be addressed, not a hurdle that should slow down the drive to elevate structures near the coast.
“You can’t live on the ground near the coast anymore,” he said. “The cities that do it will survive until the water gets here. The ones that don’t will have enormous losses when the real estate market collapses because they didn’t prepare.”
Until and unless communities revise codes, an elevation project can potentially run into a number of legal complications that could rule the option out for some homeowners.
Many neighborhoods, for instance, have height restrictions. Lifting a house up another floor — especially if, like Tannenbaum’s, the home is already two stories — could bump up against neighborhood rules.
Calleros Gauger confirmed that Tannenbaum could elevate her home without violating height restrictions due to a FEMA rule that allows buildings in flood zones to be two and a half feet above flood elevation. In Tannenbaum’s case, Calleros Gauger said, that would put her home high enough to park underneath, if she so chose.
The potential extra space begs another question. Does the elevated space count as extra square footage?
Calleros Gauger said no, although he admits that is one of the code questions the city hopes to clarify with its revisions. The new area underneath the home isn’t meant to be lived in, he said, so like the ground floors of many elevated homes in the Keys, it shouldn’t count toward the property’s square footage.
“The whole reason you’re doing it is to get inhabited space out of the risk area,” he said.
Another concern from homeowners is if the construction project triggers a city rule that would force the property owner to make other changes. It works like this: If the cost to repair or renovate an existing home passes 50 percent of its assessed value, then the homeowner also has to bring everything else on the property up to modern codes.
For homes a half-century old, that could be a deal breaker, demanding everything from new wiring to hurricane windows. But Snow, Miami’s chief of urban design, said he didn’t think elevating a property would force the home to come to new code standards. He pointed to a line in the code for rebuilding homes after storms that he believes provides justification for elevating homes. The code says homes destroyed by an “act of God” can be built back exactly the way they were before the storm, with no need to meet new codes or get rid of illegal structures grandfathered in (think mother-in-law cottages).
“We feel that we’re getting ahead of the act of God through some of these preventative measures,” Snow said.
This is music to Tannenbaum’s ears. She said she’ll be pressing forward on her quest to jack her home off the ground as quick as she can, with quotes from contractors and a little more research on the right height to elevate to. If all goes well, she can protect her home before the next round of floodwaters soak her street.
“The right time to do it, quite frankly, would be to set things up now for the next storm,” she said.