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Rebuilding FL homes will be costly

BY PJ HELLER | MARATHON, Fla. | October 9, 1998

MARATHON, Fla. (Oct. 9, 1998) -- Owners of mobile homes in the Florida

Keys that were heavily damaged by Hurricane Georges will face the long and

costly task of elevating their residences three feet or higher -- or in

some cases having to replace them with permanent structures.

While state and federal officials express confidence that the process

will go smoothly and quickly, similar hazard mitigation efforts in northern

California have been bogged down for several years due to bureaucracy and

costs that can range from $40,000 to $60,000 per unit.

In Sonoma County, Calif., for example, of 242 residences damaged in

floods in 1995 and 1997, only 32 have been elevated as of October 1998.

"It's such a long process," said Arlene Irizary, director of Deluge

Response Interfaith which has been serving Sonoma County. "Unfortunately,

quite often the headlines talk about promises of federal, aid or state aid.

Those programs are slow in coming. The general community may not realize


"Once the headlines about the actual aftermath of the disaster fade

away, people are still stuck trying to figure out if they're going to have

a home again," Irizary said.

Officials with both the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and

Monroe County, Fla., point out that there are major differences between the

situation in California and the Keys which will speed the rebuilding

process in the chain of islands.

Florida, unlike California, is one of only a few states designated as a

"managing state" under FEMA's hazard mitigation grant program, according to

Brad Loar, deputy federal coordinating officer for FEMA. That allows the

state to handle much of the review process previously done at the federal


Monroe County has also required since 1975 that all residences be

elevated, a fact which officials said helped prevent even more extensive

damage from Georges.

"Many of the newer mobile homes placed there and elevated properly

withstood Georges terrifically," Loar said, adding that many came through

with no damage whatsoever.

But, he added, "The whole issue of placing mobile homes in high hazards

areas is certainly questionable." He said the practice would continue until

local officials outlawed the practice.

Monroe County has encouraged mobile homes, allowing them in some areas

with single-family homes. The goal was to attract people who otherwise

might not be able to afford a home in the area. As their economic status

improved, they might consider replacing the mobile unit with a "stick"


In either case, since the mid-1970s, the county has required homes to be


"We've been elevating here since 1975," noted Diane Bair of the Monroe

County Growth Management Division. "The mobile homes that aren't elevated

are the ones that were here prior to 1975."

Exactly how many mobile homes were damaged when Georges slammed into the

Keys on Sept. 25 - causing more than $250 million in damages - depends on

who you ask.

Bair said less than 100 mobile homes suffered substantial damage. The

Florida Division of Emergency Management said its preliminary damage

assessment showed 689 mobile homes were impacted to some extent. The

American Red Cross reported slightly more than 1,000 of the 3,000 mobile

homes in the lower Keys suffered major damage or were destroyed.

"I don't know what they're talking about..." Bair said of the Red Cross

figures. "We certainly don't have 1,000 that are substantially damaged, not

on the field inspections I was on and I pretty much went throughout (the


A spokesman for the Emergency Management Division said the discrepancy

could be due to how the information is gathered and the basis that each

agency uses to determine damage.

Under existing Monroe County guidelines, mobile homes that are repaired

or replaced will have to be elevated a minimum of three feet. If the

structures were damaged by flooding, they will have to be elevated even

more, possibly 15 feet or higher.

"Once they've sustained flood damage at one point we don't want them to

sustain damage again," Bair said.

Mobile homes that were substantially damaged in the storm which were

allowed in areas under special use permits will have to be replaced with a

house that meets strict Monroe County building codes, Bair said.

Bair added that the building guidelines have been in place for years and

dismissed one published report suggesting that they were drawn up by county

and federal officials following the storm.

Residents with flood insurance that has been renewed since June 1, 1997

may be eligible to receive up to an additional $15,000 to help pay for the

elevation, demolition and removal of a residence and the placing of another

structure on the site.

People without flood insurance -- one estimate said half of those in the

Keys were did not carry the coverage underwritten by FEMA -- could be

eligible for a hazard mitigation grant program, if the county applies.

Bair said the county would apply for the funds.

Irizary warned that there are many other out-of-pocket costs involved

with elevating a home. They include such things as engineering surveys and

blueprints, repairs to septic systems and raising electrical boxes and hot

water heaters.

"The cost here (California) of elevating a mobile or conventional home

is averaging $40,000 to $60,000," Irizary reported. "It's not just the

lift. That's a minor part of it. You have to factor in all of the code

requirements for things like the foundation, for retrofitting these

structures for engineering purposes so they can withstand other kinds of

things like winds and earthquake."

Loar said the $15,000 from flood insurance was not designed to "take

care of everything." But he said that amount "is going to go a long way in

Monroe County."

Bair said residents could also apply for grants and Small Business

Administration loans to pay for necessary improvements. The county has

waived all permit fees for storm damage repairs and rebuilding.

Bair said that requiring residents to make improvements to faulty septic

systems or replace cess pits was mandated by the state more than a year and

a half ago. Eventually, she said, the entire county hopes to build its own

sewage treatment plants.

"We're more overdue (for improvements) than anybody in the whole

country," she said. "We're just sitting here the way we were 50 years ago."

Irizary said despite the problems in elevating homes in California, the

effort has truly been worth it. "Over and over people have stopped me on

the street and said, 'We don't know how we can ever thank you and the

interfaith for getting our home out of harms way. We can't tell you what it

felt like to know we would not lose everything again.'"

Posted October 9, 1998

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