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  1. St. Petersburg

Answer to rising waters? Raise the house

David Noah stands outside his Shore Acres home, which is in the process of being permanently elevated to avoid future flood damage. Flooding is common in Noah's neighborhood, but he and his family wanted to preserve their home rather than demolish and rebuild. [AARON HOLMES | Times]
Published Jun. 26

ST. PETERSBURG — The modest 1970s ranch house on Pennsylvania Avenue, with its pale yellow brick walls, shingle roof, and American flag jutting from above its front door, would be otherwise unremarkable on this quiet Shore Acres block.

But one unique feature sets it apart from its surroundings: the entire house, raised up on steel beams, is floating 14 feet above the ground.

"Anyone that's walking their dog stops and looks, or people driving by will do a slow roll," said David Noah, the house's owner. "Everyone's interested to see a house up in the air."

Noah, along with his wife and daughter, did not pursue the elevation project for aesthetic reasons, but instead to avoid flood damage. In the two decades since he first bought the house in 1999, Noah says flood waters have repeatedly reached his doorstep. But rather than demolish his house and rebuild a flood-resistant structure — a more common practice for flood mitigation — Noah and his family wanted to keep intact the home they occupied and customized over the years.

"I've been in my home for 20 years, so I have everything that I've done over that time," Noah said. "I just really like the house and didn't want to move."

While elevating fully-intact homes like Noah's is uncommon, city officials say it may soon become more popular. Flooding is a perennial threat for low-lying coastal communities in St. Petersburg, and federal flood insurance premiums have risen steadily for years — a cost that experts predict will only intensify as flooding becomes more frequent in years to come.

Meanwhile, raising pre-existing homes is generally faster and more cost-effective than the common practice of demolition and reconstruction, according to Noah Taylor, floodplain coordinator for the city of St. Petersburg.

To help protect more homes, the city is encouraging qualified homeowners to apply for a federal Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant, a program that pays for renovations on homes that have been repeatedly damaged by flooding.

But the program is highly competitive and the Federal Emergency Management Agency imposes bureaucratic and financial obstacles that can make it hard for homeowners to access the grants, Taylor said.

Now, as protecting homes against flooding becomes increasingly urgent, local lawmakers and residents are calling on FEMA to cut back the red tape, while exploring ways to fund flood mitigation projects locally.

"The seas are rising ... The flood maps continue to get updated, and more homes are in coastal high hazard areas. There's a greater need for us to become more resilient," St. Petersburg City Council member Brandi Gabbard said. "We need to be forward-thinking. How we can better help our residents access funding to get them out of harm's way?"

To apply for the grant, residents must submit an application through their local government, who sponsors the application through state and then national application processes. This is where many homeowners encounter their first roadblock, according to Taylor: some local governments, including several in Pinellas County, aren't willing to sponsor grant applications simply because they lack the staff to do so.

If a homeowner has sponsorship from their local government, there is still no guarantee of getting approved. According to a FEMA spokesperson, the agency provides grants only for houses that have a history of repeated flood damage, and for which the agency determines that the benefits of the project outweigh the costs — a calculation that Taylor says is often shrouded in mystery.

Just 11 projects have received FEMA funding in St. Petersburg since 2014, receiving a total of $2,088,266 in grants; of those, eight have moved forward with construction, Taylor said. Across the state of Florida, 74 projects have been funded since 2013, representing $44.4 million in federal grants, according to FEMA. By contrast, more than 350,000 homes in Florida are located in "extreme" risk zones for storm surges as classified by the National Flood Insurance Program, and Tampa Bay is the third highest metropolitan area by number of homes at risk, according to data compiled by the analytics company CoreLogic.

In Noah's case, flooding has been a routine part of living in Shore Acres.

"I bought my house in May and shortly after that I was outside cutting my grass. It was a sunny, blue-sky day, and all of a sudden there was a foot of water in the street. I found out that when there's a full moon and high tide, the streets flood," Noah said. "That was a concern, and kind of scary that water comes up out of the drain as opposed to the other way around."

Noah said heavy rains and storms make it "very common" for flood waters to reach his front door.

"I live 100 yards away from the bay but I have a waterfront property a couple of times a year," Noah said. "I was paying $5,000 per year (in flood insurance premiums) and was told that it's going to continue to go up every year until FEMA finds that it's at an appropriate rate."

Noah applied for a grant two years ago and was approved last year, and the elevation project began this spring. While raising an intact house 14 feet above the ground may sound like a herculean task, the process was surprisingly straightforward: First, a small tractor dug around the house's perimeter and construction workers removed the cement foundation, as well as several feet of soil. Next, steel I-beams were slid underneath the house and, using four hydraulic jacks, the entire structure was lifted into the air over the course of just one day.

The bottom story is being enclosed by cinderblock walls and converted into garage space, specially designed to allow water to pass through it during floods. A new staircase will be built to the front door, and Noah's old garage — now elevated — will be converted into liveable space. The entire process is expected to take three to four months, and cost $217,000, according to the building permit. Noah declined to say how much his grant paid.

Because home elevations like Noah's are relatively fast and inexpensive, it's easier for them to be awarded grants than demolition-reconstruction projects, according to Taylor. For that reason, the city decided last year to sponsor grant applications only for elevation projects going forward.

While the the grants provide sizeable chunks of money for those who can get them, Gabbard believes the current system is insufficient.

"What's important is that there is more of this funding ... and there's got to be a way FEMA can cut the red tape and help homeowners get their hands on these funds fast, especially when they're in repetitive loss areas," Gabbard said.

Gabbard has introduced a City Council business item to explore paying for flood mitigation measures, including home elevations, at a local level. The measure has been tabled until the council finishes completes a stormwater study, but could be discussed again later this year.

While Noah says the elevation has been a "learning process," he's grateful that he was able to secure a grant, and is looking forward to the day when his family and their two labrador retrievers can move out of their Airbnb rental wand return to their newly elevated family home.

"The whole thing has really been a challenge and a learning experience," he said. "We're excited to get back home."

Contact Aaron Holmes at aholmes@tampabay.com or (706) 347-1880. Follow @aaronpholmes.

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