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In Balto. County, a tall order after Isabel

Sun Staff

When bay-shore residents finally get their heads above water and rebuild homes wrecked by Tropical Storm Isabel, the houses in many old waterside neighborhoods will get taller.

That's just fine with Brenda Tucker, whose 40-year-old cottage on Bay Drive in Bowleys Quarters was badly battered by the storm's waves and tidal flooding.

"I would rather build it up," she said. "It could be 20 feet up in the air, and I would care less. Not one little bit."

Because of building codes adopted in the 1970s, anyone rebuilding within the state's official flood plains - or making "substantial" repairs or renovations - must elevate their first floor above the so-called "100-year flood" level. In Tucker's neighborhood, that means about 10 feet above mean low water and a lot higher than most homes are now.

Her more immediate concern yesterday was whether her flood insurance or homeowner's insurance - or both - would cover the costs.

Standing in her front yard, her back to the Chesapeake, she gazed at the collapsed roof marking the spot where Isabel's waves crashed through her house, carrying away her Florida room and a 30-foot deck.

"I don't know if there will be enough money to fix it. I don't know if it will be condemned," said Tucker, 57.

The storm story ended far more happily for Steve Moody, 50. His bay-side house in Bowleys Quarters was built 11 years ago under current flood insurance rules. The first floor stands just above the 100-year flood level, and it stayed dry.

"We didn't have any damage, really," he said. His circuit breakers, central vacuum controls and some ductwork got wet. So did plenty of stuff he had stored in the crawl space beneath the first floor when he moved in two months ago.

He also lost an Alfa Romeo, a Porsche, a Maserati and an Infiniti. But compared with the devastation visited on most of his neighbors, he got off easy. "This is one of the few houses that didn't get clobbered," he said.

Moody's situation is part of an Isabel success story, said Roger Benson, a natural hazards specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"All the new construction we saw that met the requirements of the county did not have damage," he said. And now, "all the new construction that's going to be built in the future is going to have a greatly reduced risk of flooding."

The rules adopted under the National Flood Insurance program say that anyone rebuilding in the flood plain or making repairs or renovations exceeding 50 percent of the fair market value of the house (excluding the land and outbuildings) has to lift the dwelling above the 100-year flood line.

That level varies around the bay. But in Baltimore County it is roughly 10 feet above mean low water. How high is that? For a rough estimate, just look for Isabel's high-water mark.

"From the appearance of the highest rise of the Chesapeake in the tidal surge, it was very close to the height" of the 100-year flood, Benson said.

Actually, Benson doesn't use the term "100-year flood" because he doesn't want those who experienced Isabel to believe that they've endured the flood of their lives and that the danger is past.

The proper term, he said, is the "1 percent annual chance flood." That means there's a 1-in-100 chance of such a flood occurring in any year.

The rules don't mean that every new or rebuilt home must stand on 10-foot stilts. It means the first floor has to be above the 100-year flood line. For example, if your building site is 5 feet above mean low water, your new first floor will have to be elevated 5 more feet to be above a 10-foot flood line.

The rules may be stricter in some jurisdictions. Baltimore County, which suffered some of the worst damage from Isabel, adds an extra foot of "freeboard" to the prescribed flood level.

When Robert Lewis and his wife decided two years ago to tear down their 1925 "shore shack" on Burke Road and build a place, they went beyond the county's requirement.

Their first floor is 15 feet above mean low water, and 9 feet above grade, giving them a usable ground floor. Visitors must climb 15 steps to the front door, but the living areas stayed dry.

Although they lost two cars and some other property on the ground level, the Lewises know how fortunate they are. "I look around at all these other people who had horrible losses," Lewis said.

The Maryland Department of the Environment said 78,000 improved properties are within Maryland's 100-year flood plains. Of those, more than 51,000 - about two thirds - have flood insurance policies.

John M. Joyce, the department's flood insurance coordinator, said insured homeowners whose houses were destroyed or "substantially damaged" (more than 50 percent of fair market value), may receive up to $30,000 to cover the costs of raising their homes above the flood line.

That's in addition to whatever they receive toward the replacement of the house, he said.

Those without flood insurance may be eligible for other grants under federal, state and local programs.

Many homeowners will simply lift their homes onto new pilings. "You just jack it up; the technology to do that is out here, and it's well known," Benson said. Others will raze their damaged homes and build from scratch.

Raising a home's first floor above the flood level also means elevating all its utilities, including the furnace, water heater, central air conditioner, panel boxes and electrical outlets, said John R. Reisinger, Baltimore County's chief building engineer.

These new or rebuilt homes will have no basements. Owners also sign "nonconversion" agreements promising not to convert the ground floor space to a living area. The agreements become part of their deeds.

Homeowners can use ground floor storage as a garage, but it must include "flood venting." These are ports that pop open in a flood and allow the water to flow through without causing structural damage. Any outbuildings larger than 100 square feet must meet the same flood codes as the house.

New construction in flood plains has had to meet these codes for decades, FEMA officials said. Their effect is most noticeable along Maryland's Atlantic beaches, where every new "cottage" has been built on tall pilings.

Baltimore County officials had no estimate of how many houses will have to be elevated if they're rebuilt. That won't be calculated until owners begin seeking building permits.

In his tours of Baltimore and Carroll counties, part of FEMA's preliminary damage assessments, Benson said people who once objected to elevating their homes had changed their tunes.

"In the future," Benson said, "I don't think you're going to have a lot of people say, 'I don't want to elevate it; it will never flood.' You've sold the entire building community [on the reality] that this can happen."

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