Community

Elevation projects raise hopes for Jefferson County homeowners

A worker moves cartloads of dirt beneath a raised home as the ground surrounding it is leveled. Several homes in Bevil Oaks have been raised, with many more scheduled for elevation work, following grant money to do the work as protection against future flood damage. Residents in the small city straddling the Jefferson and Hardin County line were among some of the hardest hit during Tropical Storm Harvey.
source Kim Brent

When flood waters come, as they frequently have been in Southeast Texas over the past decade, it often leaves homeowners to decide whether to move up or move out.

Fortunately, funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Texas General Land Office are finally becoming more readily available for at least one community in northern Jefferson County, allowing homeowners to rise above the flood waters.

Currently, five homes in Bevil Oaks are in the middle of elevation projects to rise almost five feet from ground level, serving as a pilot for the more than 20 homes already targeted for the next round of projects.

One of those homes is owned by Doug and Barbara Emmons, who have now had to face flooding twice in the 10 years they’ve owned their home in Bevil Oaks.

But, after five months of work to gradually lift their two story home, Doug Emmons said he’s feeling confident the days of stripped dry-wall and water damage are likely behind them.

“We got 7 and a half feet in Harvey and 26 inches in (Tropical Depression) Imelda, but I don’t think I’ll have any issues at this point,” he said.

That sense of relief is a far cry from what most people in Bevil Oaks were feeling after either Harvey or Imelda, when most were preoccupied with how to replace their lives and their homes.

But, once long-awaited grants and aid funds have finally been dispersed –sometimes years after storms have occurred– homeowners can often be left in the same position without programs to help mitigate the next disaster.

Without approval from the GLO for the elevation projects in Bevil Oaks and an experienced contractor, Emmons said most homeowners would have been left with the option to move or try to completely rebuild with a higher foundation.

On Thursday, over $15 million in flood mitigation grants were awarded for projects in Jefferson County by the Texas Water Development Board, including more than $1 million for home elevations.

Bevil Oaks selected the Arkitektura Development firm to lead its projects, which has been performing engineering work for elevations since at least 2002, but has recently been taking on large projects in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Phillip Contreras, founder and president of Arkitektura, said home elevations weren’t something that homeowners along the Gulf Coast were particularly clamoring for, until Hurricane Ike drove home the potential for catastrophic damage in Texas.

“Our first grant project actually came through in 2009 for FEMA and after that, it really took off,” Contreras said.

The same is true for Harvey, as funds are still being calculated and dispersed for the damage caused from that storm.

Contreras said Arkitektura has been able to prevent costly rebuilds and future flooding for its clients that have gone through the process, using a series of hydraulic jacks and tunneling techniques under foundations to lift almost any residential structure.

The volume of projects and advancements in the process have also helped gradually bring down costs, but most homeowners still have to rely on government aid programs or loans from the Small Business Administration to make an elevation a reality.

Contreras said the round of 20 homes in Bevil Oaks will likely be between $1 and $2 million by the time they’re all completed.

While any elevation may help prevent some damage, Contreras said the real key to make sure a project is worthwhile has been ensuring it will be effective for the lifetime of the home.

Through sea-level rise and shifts in the intensity of the Atlantic hurricane season, he said the kind of damage his company has been addressing has only seemed to grow more intense and frequent over the years.

FEMA has guidelines that dictate elevation projects be built at least a foot higher than the high-water mark recorded for an area, and cities sometimes also have building requirements for new structures, but the engineers at Arkitektura often recommend adding a foot or two beyond the minimum requirement.

Contreras said he sometimes clients question the added elevation, but several of the completed projects —like one in Meyerland— have already prevented damage from seasonal flooding that brought waters within a foot of a home’s front door.

“It’s important to remember that FEMA recommendations and flood maps are routinely adjusted,” Contreras said. “I’ve never seen the map go down, it always goes up.”

Written by Jacob Dick

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