By Donald Wittkowski
Tony Kutschera Jr. had not one, but two of his homes in Sea Isle City swamped by floodwaters when Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Jersey Shore in 2012.
The next blow came in January of 2016, when the powerful coastal storm Jonas unleashed another destructive surge of flooding that caused further damage to one of Kutschera’s properties.
Now, Kutschera is grappling with the decision whether to spend the money to elevate one or both of his homes – which sit side-by-side on 45th Street in a flood-prone neighborhood – to protect them from future storms.
“Does it make sense to do it simultaneously for both places? Money is always an issue,” he said.
Hoping to find answers, Kutschera, a local roofing contractor, was among about 80 people who attended a community forum in Sea Isle on Saturday for information about a federal grant program that will disburse a total of $4 million to homeowners in four Cape May County seashore towns to help them lift their homes above flood level.
Under the program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will earmark $1 million apiece to Avalon, Ocean City, Sea Isle and Stone Harbor for home-elevation projects in flood-prone areas.
“The state wants to elevate as many properties as possible using this money. We will find a way to spend that $4 million, believe me,” said Jonathan Raser, a representative of Tetra Tech, a consulting company that is helping the four towns pursue the grant money.
Raser’s company is preparing an application for the grant program that must be submitted by May 17. Raser was unsure how long it will take for the grants to be approved for eligible homeowners, but he urged the residents at Saturday’s community forum to be patient.
“I can guarantee, it will take about a year before you get a notice to proceed,” he said, referring to the start date for individual projects.
Neil Byrne, construction official for Sea Isle City, warned homeowners they would be disqualified from the program if they started to build their projects before getting the official notice to proceed.
Homeowners who want to be considered for home-elevation grants are facing an April 10 deadline to submit information on their property. They may do so by going to the website http://www.capemaycountyhmp.com/Pages/2017-Jonas-Grant-Program.aspx.
Another community forum on the grant program is scheduled for April 1 at 10 a.m. at the Ocean City Free Public Library, 1735 Simpson Ave. That forum will also give homeowners an overview of the program and how to complete the paperwork for their property. It is open to residents from all four participating towns.
Interested property owners are asked to register for the forum by going to the following website and completing the short registration form: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/JonasHMGP.
Not all homeowners whose properties are included in the application for grant money will be approved. There is a ranking system that gives preference to homeowners who have a history of flood damage and live in neighborhoods most vulnerable to flooding.
The grant application being prepared by Raser’s company estimates that it will cost an average of $160,000 for each home-elevation project. Using that estimate, only about six homeowners in each of the four towns would share in the $1 million in grants allotted to Avalon, Ocean City, Sea Isle and Stone Harbor.
However, Raser noted that FEMA may choose to focus on smaller houses that would fall below the $160,000 threshold to try to squeeze as many homes in the entire $4 million grant pool as possible.
Whatever happens, Byrne expressed confidence there will be enough funding to go around for home-lifting projects in Sea Isle.
“We’re anticipating the number of homes will not outstrip the funding,” Byrne said. “But let’s see how many people actually come through in seeking the grant money.”
The program reimburses property owners for 75 percent of the cost of their home-elevation projects, meaning they will have to pay 25 percent out of their own pocket.
Cape May County is currently working with several local lending institutions that may be able to provide low-interest “bridge loans” for homeowners until they are reimbursed under the program, Raser said.
Homeowners who receive home-elevation grants will be required to maintain flood insurance on the property for as long as the house is there. The flood insurance requirement becomes part of the property deed.