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Sha'Ron James


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Long road to recovery for Hurricane Matthew victims with substantially damaged homes

 

Date: November 28, 2016
Source: The St. Augustine Record
Author:  Jake Martin

 

Several weeks after Hurricane Matthew, many residents are discovering the road to recovery is littered with uncertainty, confusion, paperwork, stipulations and a whole lot of stress.

Posts to a public group page on Facebook called Saint Augustine Hurricane Recovery hint at the frustration. Just untangling the purposes, responsibilities and requirements of all the local, state and federal agencies involved in the process has become a full-time commitment for some.

Those with homes deemed “substantially damaged” are faced with wallet-burning questions of whether to demolish and rebuild or elevate their homes, or whether to hire outside help and appeal or just give up.

Per guidelines from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “substantial damage” means damage of any origin sustained by a structure whereby the cost of restoring the structure to its pre-damaged condition would equal or exceed 50 percent of the market value of the structure before the damage occurred.

The 50 percent rule applies to all buildings in flood hazard areas, regardless of whether the building was covered by flood insurance. Additionally, buildings requiring substantial improvements must also be brought up to current codes, which include flood elevation minimums, meaning they could have to be raised.

None of that comes without a hefty price tag.

Davis Shores resident Jimmy Smith, whose house is subject to the 50 percent rule, posted some of his concerns to the Saint Augustine Hurricane Recovery page, generating dozens of comments from people in similar situations.

Smith said he was told by his adjuster that his flood insurance would only pay to rebuild his house to its condition prior to the flood, but nothing more. Meanwhile, he can’t rebuild his home without making it compliant with FEMA’s rule. Others shared similar stories.

Lamenting the lack of reliable information, one commenter wrote, “no one really knows what the true process is.”

Julie Lazecki, managing broker at Beach State Brokers, said she suspects the 50 percent rule is going to be a “thorn in our side” for a while.

That complication, among many others in the rebuilding process, led her to create a Facebook page called Saint Augustine Rebuilding Our Homes. She said her goal is to provide a carefully moderated page with good, consolidated information.

Lazecki said she’s using her years of experience in real estate — and with filing flood claims — as well as enlisting the help of contractors, adjusters and other professionals in order to close information gaps and find answers.

Every issue has its sub-issues. For example, Lazecki referenced many gray areas regarding the 50 percent rule. How the value of a home is determined, what types of damage is considered, what kind of flexibility do local municipalities have in interpreting FEMA guidelines and what types of funding mechanisms are available to residents needing substantial improvements are just a few lingering questions.

The shortcomings are not limited to information but apply to money as well. Although flood insurance will provide up to $30,000 to raise a home, Lazecki said she hasn’t seen a lot of totals fall within that amount. FEMA money might not do the job either, depending on eligibilities, timing and what else needs to be done.

Meanwhile, everything affects the next thing.

Lazecki warned against using a contractor without experience working through the flood process, because they can tend to pad the bills for unforeseen issues. She said some people are saying bids are coming in so high, and unnecessarily so, that they don’t know what to do. On the other hand, waiting for a contractor with such experience is likely to take more time, which is another rapidly dwindling commodity for many residents looking to get back to normal.

She encouraged residents to make sure their contractors are licensed to work in Florida and registered with St. Johns County, with at least $2 million in liability insurance or performance bonds, before moving forward. She said to avoid open-ended contracts and to try and establish firm completion dates and definitive prices going in.

Lazecki also said people shouldn’t be so afraid of low-interest loans available through the Small Business Administration, which can be used for residential and commercial properties. She said the loans can help make improvements to homes while mitigating recurrent flood issues and, thus, lowering flood insurance premiums.

She said the journey for many people is just beginning, depending on how much and what kind of work they need done.

“There’s shock to begin with,” Lazecki said. “The next two weeks you’re walking around in a daydream, then you start looking for answers and then you start panicking.”

FEMA is hosting a town hall meeting 6 p.m. Tuesday in the North Shores Community Center at 120 Meadow Ave., Vilano Beach.

Lazecki said this could be a good meeting to attend for anyone wanting to know more about the 50 percent rule and proposed elevations for those affected homes.