Ten years ago, dozens of single-story beach cottages dotted the streets of Merion Park, a low-lying neighborhood in Ocean City’s south end. Then Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 and the quiet New Jersey residential neighborhood was flooded with more than two feet of water.
Now, Merion Park looks vastly different.
“I think the whole neighborhood has kind of gone through a renaissance,” Chris Halliday told The Press of Atlantic City.
An architect and local resident, Halliday purchased the first home ever built in Merion Park from Joe Newsome in the spring of 2012, a few months before Sandy.
“It had 24 inches plus of water in the house after the hurricane,” Halliday said.
So he rebuilt it – eight feet off the ground.
“And that was required by the city, which means we felt like the house would never get wet, ever,” Halliday said.
New federal and city regulations are causing buildings throughout the shore region to go higher and higher, elevating the skylines of shore towns and bringing to an end the era of the beach cottage.
“If you look at Ocean City pre-Sandy, ‘height’ was kind of a bad word,” said Frank Donato, Ocean City’s finance director and emergency management coordinator. “But now that were in a post-Sandy era, and based on things like the new flood maps … I think it’s kind of mandated nowadays that these structures be higher.”
Avalon emergency management coordinator and Fire Chief Ed Dean said that higher homes are critical for saving shore properties from damage during severe floods.
“It’s definitely changing the faces of the towns, but it’s changing the faces of the town toward resiliency,” Dean said. “Let’s face it, those little summer cottages are flooding out because we’re getting more floods than we ever had before.”
Since Hurricane Sandy, builders in Ocean City have to meet new elevation requirements pushing first floors 2 feet above base flood elevation (the height to which water is expected to rise during the 1-year storm). Avalon requires 3 feet of height above base flood elevation, what is referred to as “freeboard.”
Because of flood prevention efforts like this, towns like Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Avalon and Stone Harbor have been rewarded by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. Homeowners in these towns receive a 25 percent discount on their flood insurance premiums.
In addition, the state recently allocated $1 million per town to complete home elevation projects for what are called “severe repetitive loss properties,” homes that are damaged often in storms. The funding comes as a result of Winter Storm Jonas last year.
“In FEMA’s eyes, if they can take a storm like Jonas, turn it around and invest the money into hazard mitigation projects, then it’s money well spent, as far as they’re concerned,” Donato said.
Local developer Dean Adams also lives in Merion Park and has been building homes for the last 20 years. Last week, he was putting up the walls and stairs on a custom home on Bartram Avenue where, just a few years ago, stood a single-story home on a slab.
“Of course everything that was built in the ’40s and ’50s had no regulations, let alone any kind of freeboard,” Adams said.
Adams estimated that only about 25 or 30 percent of the housing stock in Merion Park was new when Sandy hit. He said that probably half of the homes in the neighborhood were damaged in the storm and have been replaced with higher homes.
Adams said whether or not the loss of the lower skyline is a negative thing is subjective.
“When Hurricane Sandy (hit) and all these rules were changing, I said to people over time – maybe three, four, five, six years – this is just going to become normal,” Adams said. “It’s just the evolution of things.”
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