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Over five years after Sandy, Town of Hempstead homeowners are told they must elevate

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When Oceanside resident Mike Cascio went to the Town of Hempstead’s Building Department last May to obtain the necessary permits for a home extension, the town informed him that he needed to provide documentation detailing his Hurricane Sandy-related repairs.

Cascio, a contractor, said he put new sheetrock and flooring in the home, but once he notified town building officials of the repairs, he was told that he would need to elevate the home — more than five years after the storm.

Cascio said the news hit him “like a punch to the gut.”

Building Department officials informed him that his home had been so badly damaged in the 2012 storm that it would have to be elevated in order to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines — and in order for him to keep his flood insurance.

Cascio is one of a handful of town residents who say they made repairs after the storm — or purchased homes after Sandy — and were informed over the past year that they would need to raise their homes because they had been substantially damaged, meaning that the cost of repairing them would exceed 50 percent of their market value before the storm.

“Certainly in the wake of Sandy, there was a lot of sympathy for Sandy survivors,” Cascio said, “and now, five years later, it’s like the opposite.”

Many said the news caught them off guard, and they may be responsible for all costs associated with elevating their homes, because as of April 2014, the NY Rising program was no longer taking new applicants.

“Let’s just say there was an ounce of optimism in me,” Cascio said of his hopes shortly after he learned he would need to elevate his home. “I went to New York Rising, but it was too late. Deadlines were closed. That was the final nail in the coffin.”

Chris Hsieh, who lives near Cascio, purchased his Oceanside home in 2014 and said he went to obtain permits from the town last year to install solar panels on his roof.

He, too, was asked to provide information on Sandy-related repairs made to the home. After spending $600 to hire an architect to compile and submit the documentation, he said, he was also told that he must elevate his house.

“If I’m purchasing a home, I should know there’s substantial damage on it,” he said. “Is it me at fault because I purchased the home?”

FEMA recommends that local municipalities inspect all homes lying within the agency’s designated flood plains, and make substantial-damage determinations in the immediate aftermath of a storm in order to remain in the National Flood Insurance Program, according to the agency’s guidelines for local building officials. FEMA also advises that building departments ensure that homeowners are notified to hold off on repairs before their homes are inspected.

Hsieh said that a substantial-damage determination should have appeared in background checks by real estate agents when he was purchasing his home, but in his case, it could not have, because at that point, none had been made.

Speaking by phone, Town Building Department Commissioner John Rottkamp and Flood Plain Manager Rebecca Furst told the Herald that in the days after Sandy, inspectors walked the streets and visually assessed each home, color-grading them green, yellow or red, according to the severity of damage they believed the home sustained — with red tagged as the most severely damaged and green having received little to no damage.

“What that means is we didn’t go into every house,” Rottkamp said, adding that his department left documentation on homeowners’ doorsteps telling them to begin repairs, and to file building permits with his department as the work was being undertaken.

“We told them the Town of Hempstead would waive building permit fees and that they should come in and file building permits,” Rottkamp said. But until homeowners filed such permits, he said, his department would not have enough information to designate a home as substantially damaged.

“How would we know if they don’t notify us?” he said.

Out of the 65,000 town homes lying in the FEMA-designated flood plain, the Town of Hempstead has determined that 893 are substantially damaged from the storm, with 12 substantial-damage decisions made in 2018, according to Furst.

She said that for homeowners filing repair permits years after the storm, her department had to rely on insurance claims to make the determination whether a home had been substantially damaged. “After claims have already been issued, it really limits you in what you can do to determine substantial damage,” Furst explained. “. . . Basically it’s based off of what you received” from the insurance company.

In an emailed statement, a FEMA spokesperson said that local municipalities use what the agency considers “acceptable methods” to determine whether a structure has been substantially damaged, such as compiling itemized lists of the costs of materials and labor estimates. None of the methods, however, include relying on insurance claims, which can vary based on the level of coverage.

Bay Park Civic Association Vice President Rachel Sumerson, who helped organize a Sept. 20, 2016, meeting between Building Department representatives and residents, said the officials told residents that regardless of whether homeowners had owned their houses at the time of the hurricane, they needed to come in to the Building Department and apply for building permits for past repairs before they could know whether their homes had been substantially damaged.

“They pretty much told us that they did not analyze anyone for substantial damage unless they came in for permits,” Sumerson said.

Cascio’s preliminary report, obtained from the Building Department for his home, which designated it as yellow, for moderate damage, lacked a bathroom and extension in the floor plan, additions he said the report would have included if an inspector had entered his home. Despite this, his substantial-damage notification states that town officials had observed three to five feet of water in his home, and that he would have to raise it.

Oceanside-based architect Monte Leeper, who is a Herald columnist, said that a substantial-damage determination could result in dire consequences for the homeowner. The town, he said, “can issue violations and start procedures to take your home.” Cascio said that a home elevation could cost a homeowner at least $150,000.

“We get audited by FEMA — we have to do this,” Rottkamp said. “We’ve done everything possible to get the information to people. The town did mailers, outreaches; we opened up the hours we were available just to make it easier to stop by.”

Cascio acknowledges that he should have filed for permits when he repaired his home, but that the result, he said, was “worse than the storm.” While he is fighting the substantial-damage determination through the Town Board of Zoning Appeals, he said he has little hope of success.

It’s a case, he said, where “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”