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Safer & Stronger: How to Rebuild After Superstorm Sandy

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy’s razing of New Jersey’s coast, the need for superior building materials like precast concrete wall systems has become abundantly clear.

By Sue McCraven

Dave Jensen, owner of this stunning precast concrete home in Lincroft, N.J., said, “My house is so quiet inside! It’s very energy-efficient because of the high R-value of the insulated Superior Walls. Precast concrete is more expensive up front, but I don’t consider that much of an issue because it went up fast, has excellent fire resistance and no seams for air or water penetration. Precast didn’t limit the custom architectural elements we wanted, like our arched entrance door and curved windows.”  Photos courtesy of Dave Jensen.A full autumnal moon, hauling up her swelling tides along our East Coast, joined forces with a rare convergence of weather fronts. This weather trifecta force-fed the approaching hurricane, bloating Hurricane Sandy into a 2,000-mile-diameter freak of nature and establishing it in the record books as the biggest Atlantic storm ever. And despite Sandy’s seemingly laid-back approach on those last days of October 2012, her lethal intent was a direct, full-throttle collision with New Jersey’s beautiful shores, a state treasure.

“Within 10 minutes, the water rose above 5 ft,” claimed one trapped resident. Other besieged homeowners said, “You can’t even imagine the force of the water, the wind – the fear.” “The water just rose so rapidly that there was no escaping it.” “The force of the water just blew homes apart.”

In the first days of 2013, two months after Sandy’s 14-ft storm surge receded, New Jersey’s shocked and devastated coastal residents were finally allowed access to see what little remained of their neighborhoods. After the extent of destruction sunk in, people turned their hopes and concerns to the future: “We are waiting to see if we can afford to rebuild to revised FEMA(1) codes.”

“Rebuild stronger and smarter.” This is Sandy’s terrible lesson – and the objective of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). During nasty weather – from tsunamis to tornados – owners testify that they feel safe and secure in their precast concrete homes, and precast safe rooms meet FEMA’s strict criteria for near-absolute storm protection. If the Jersey Shore needs strong and sustainable rebuilding solutions, strong precast systems fit the bill.

Figure 1

Figure 1

A recipe for disaster

Almost 9 million residents make New Jersey the most densely populated state in the country, and 60% of its people live along a shoreline that isn’t much higher than sea level. Intense shoreline development continued for many decades despite climate experts’ warnings of certain calamity from rising seas and the likelihood of monstrous storms(2). The Jersey Shore is home to its vital seaside ecotourism, a big-moneyed power broker in state and local politics.

Even with the state’s Home Rule that relegates flood zoning decisions to local jurisdictions, Jeff Kolakowski, vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Builders Association (NJBA), said, “New Jersey has strong environmental protection policies, and all construction must comply with state laws as well as local zoning ordinances (3).”

According to Anthony Bevilacqua, president of Anthony & Co. Inc. Insurance, a New Jersey Property & Casualty insurance agency in Flemington, “You’ll find every style of construction from modest vacation homes to luxury full-time residences along our 130-mile coastline. It is estimated about 60% of these properties are primary residences. Not all property owners know flood insurance rates are based on FEMA elevation guidelines.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Service (NOAA) reported that New Jersey has not experienced a storm of Sandy’s magnitude in recorded history. Put in human terms, Bevilacqua said, “Two generations of coastal residents have no recollection of anything like Sandy.” So it isn’t news that New Jerseyites were unprepared, because superstorms were never part of this state’s culture or collective consciousness. New Jersey’s history, demographics, culture and intense shoreline development, taken together, created a precariously cantilevered cauldron and a recipe for disaster.

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“Can I afford to rebuild?”

Completed precast concrete home on the Jersey Shore presents tasteful architectural elements while the strong precast walls ensure the homeowner’s security and peace of mind that this durable construction resists storm forces and water penetration.  Photo courtesy of Northeast Precast LLC, Millville, N.J. (www.northeastprecast.com)To help residents rebuild and get their lives back to normal as soon as possible, Gov. Chris Christie isn’t waiting for FEMA to come out with new base flood evaluations (BFEs) later this year. He enacted an emergency bill in January to adopt FEMA’s interim advisory base flood evaluations (ABFEs) so that homeowners can decide if they can afford to rebuild their homes in compliance with new, post-Sandy guidelines(4).

These building guidelines are especially critical for those living in the V-Zone (high-velocity waves 3 ft above storm surge level – see Figure 1) where FEMA is expected to raise BFEs by 4 ft (see Figure 2) for first-floor construction. With only four in 10 homes insured for flooding, George Vallone, president of Hoboken Brownstone Co. and NJBA executive officer, said, “The big question after Superstorm Sandy is whether or not people can afford to rebuild.” In the past, flood insurance rates have not reflected the true cost of rebuilding, even with generous federal subsidies. But Sandy’s catastrophic impact on the state changed everything.

“Rebuild safer & stronger” = structural integrity

FEMA is calling for stronger and safer structures for New Jersey’s rebuilding efforts(5) that Christie said will require many years of hard work, given the scope of Sandy’s devastation. With fond childhood memories of family vacations spent at the shore, Christie has an unshakable commitment to ensure a smart, resilient and sustainable resurrection of what he calls the “Heart of New Jersey.”

What is the No. 1 concern of coastal residents? “You want to be able to return to your home after a storm and see it standing there, completely intact,” said Dixon Barbee, a representative for Northeast Precast LLC in Millville, N.J., who works with homeowners, builders and contractors daily and knows firsthand what people are going through. If you want your family to be able to return home after Mother Nature has reminded us who is boss, you’ll need “rebuilding materials with proven, engineered structural integrity,” said Barbee. Only superior materials, like reinforced, insulated precast concrete wall systems, can offer security and peace of mind. It no longer makes common or fiscal sense to rebuild to the old status quo. As FEMA advises, “Rebuilding safer and stronger pays off.”

Figure 2

Figure 2

FEMA requires piles and breakaway walls (nonstructural coverings designed to wash away under surge forces) for first-floor construction in the V-Zone. Northeast Precast is one of the region’s precast concrete manufacturers that produce Superior Walls(6), an insulated and steel-reinforced precast concrete building system that is both strong and sustainable. Precast can be used to great advantage in FEMA’s A-Zone reconstruction efforts. Wood pilings are preferred in the A-Zone, and in some cases these pilings will be cut off at grade. A grade beam can then be poured on the sawed-off piles as a secure foundation for upper stories. A precast concrete lower story with surge flow-through vents and upper stories will guarantee a barrier against water penetration.

Traditional building materials (wood frame, brick and CMUs) have proven to be inadequate for high-risk flood zones. Precast concrete products are installed rapidly with minimal site disruption, meeting Christie’s demand that people who have lost their homes can “return to normal as soon as possible”. Precast also fulfills his goal to rebuild with resilient, durable materials (see the sidebar “10 Reasons to Rebuild with Precast Concrete Insulated Wall Systems” for product details).

FEMA, Gov. Christie & Mother Nature: rebuild stronger

Unfortunately, many residential contractors are not familiar with the benefits of precast concrete home building systems. When they hear “precast concrete,” many misinformed owners, and even some experienced builders and contractors, think of anything made of “concrete” as poured-in-place concrete basement walls that often leak when built near high water tables or in flood zones. Although engineers, builders and Christie realize they need to specify more durable construction to meet FEMA’s rebuilding guidelines, strong and durable precast concrete building systems are often not on their radar.

Owners deserve to hear the true cost/benefit analysis between precast concrete and traditional building materials – valid comparisons that include strength, safety, energy savings and service life. Exceptional materials have a higher initial cost, and that’s true in every product or service market.

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It can’t be denied that most prospective homeowners, builders and local jurisdictions are looking for the cheapest solution. But Sandy’s lesson tells us there is no longer any viable rationale for rebuilding in flood zones with traditional construction that proved its structural inadequacy.

Compared with other building materials, the overriding benefits of precast concrete make it the smartest choice for many of New Jersey’s rebuilding efforts. With its proven strength, energy efficiency and structural integrity, precast’s higher initial cost is more than repaid through greater public safety, storm resistance and a long, long service life.

Sue McCraven, senior NPCA technical consultant and Precast Solutions editor, is a civil and environmental engineer.

Footnotes

  1. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) mission “supports our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.” NFIP (National Flood Insurance Program) is managed and funded by FEMA. U.S. taxpayers fund FEMA and therefore pay for all reimbursements to eligible homeowners for flood-damage insurance claims.
  2. New Jersey: Assessing the Costs of Climate Change,” National Conference of State Legislatures & the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Environmental Research, Climate Change and the Economy, 2008, ISBN 978-1-58024-512-8 (See References).
  3. New Jersey builders must obtain a permit from either The Division of Codes or Standards, which enforces the Uniform Construction Code, or The Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA) for shore development. New laws and regulations that provide additional protection to coastal communities include the Flood Hazard Area Control Act and Stormwater Management rules.
  4. FEMA guidelines apply to buildings that sustained damage equal to 50% of their value.
  5. FEMA “Rebuilding After Hurricane Sandy – Rebuilding Safer and Stronger Pays Off,” December 2012, www.Region2Coastal.com.
  6. Superior Walls is a patented, warranted, insulated precast concrete wall system that is steel-reinforced and a Green Approved Product that is custom manufactured to each building’s specifications. Superior Walls of America manufacturers are independently owned and operated, www.superiorwalls.com.

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