Homes and spirits being lifted by federal dollars in Virginia Beach. Here’s how

VIRGINIA BEACH — A FEMA grant program administered by the city to raise flood-prone properties has faced inflated contractor bids and lawsuits from unhappy homeowners.

Despite setbacks, the city has worked with FEMA to resurrect the program and bring financial — and emotional — relief to the homeowners involved.

A tide of money rolls in

The city applied for its first flood mitigation grant through FEMA in 2010. Since then, the city has been awarded four grants to raise 29 flood-prone homes at a cost of $6.5 million. To date, the city has raised seven.

Jeff Evans has owned his Virginia Beach home for 21 years and qualified for a grant. His backyard sits on a canal leading into Broad Bay, and he estimates his home has flooded about 10 times since moving there. His home is one of two in Virginia Beach currently being lifted through the city’s flood mitigation program.

“The work being done on my home — it’s very much disrupted my life, but you have to consider the end result,” Evans said.

Related story: Scientists supporting Virginia Beach’s fight against flooding

Evans recalls countless squeegees and high-speed drying fans in his living room, and said once the project is complete, it will increase his quality of life significantly.

“The life-change is going to be when the next storm comes and I won’t have to pick up everything, move it off the floor, abandon my house, or just sit there and watch the water creep into my home,” Evans said.

He is currently renting a Norfolk apartment while Expert House Movers completes the work. His annual flood insurance premium can be up to $5,000 — all of which must be paid at once.

After contractors finish lifting his home, Evans said his “flood insurance should be about $500 a year, because I won’t be in a flood zone anymore at all.” 

Homeowners in Virginia Beach with more than four flood insurance claims were eligible to apply for the grants through the city, said Erin Sutton, the city’s director of emergency preparedness.

Those homeowners were also required to meet FEMA’s cost-benefit analysis.

The program flowed, then it ebbed

Between August 2014 and July 2015, contractors raised seven homes in the city with FEMA grant money — two near Crystal Lake at the Oceanfront, two in the Lynnhaven Colony neighborhood, and three on Bay Island — less than a quarter-mile away from Evans.

Sutton said the real challenge to administering the FEMA grants has been the contracting process.

FEMA guidelines required that the city solicit bids from contractors, rather than homeowners themselves. This leads to inflated bids that made lifting the houses more costly, Sutton said.

For example, the city received only one bid to lift houses for the second grant it received, and the price was “exorbitant,” Sutton said.

In May 2017, Sutton briefed City Council on the program’s setbacks, after which the city put the flood mitigation program on hold.

The program makes a comeback

After months of negotiations with the city, FEMA agreed to let property owners hire contractors directly in November 2017. This new contracting process brought the program back to life and drastically reduced the costs of lifting houses in Virginia Beach.

Bids varied from $333,111 to $440,087 (per home) as part of the city’s second FEMA grant. After the new agreement with FEMA, “the bids came in $100,000 less than they were before,” Sutton said.

Although the program’s turn around is considered a success, Sutton said lifting houses is not the only approach she’s considered for flood mitigation.

Sutton said the city is also working to expand its owner-occupied rehab program, and she would also like to develop a local buy-out program. But even that has its challenges.

“When you buy a home out, you make a green space, and that’s a loss in the city’s tax base,” Sutton said. “In Virginia, real estate taxes are a good percentage of localities’ budgets, so you have to look at the big picture.”

Evans, too, is also considering the big picture, although work to lift his home has displaced him, and he’s fought back flood waters in his home for decades, he remains optimistic.

“You know, you get home from work, you jump in the boat, go out to Broad Bay, turn off the motor, eat dinner, watch the sunset, watch the dolphins play. It’s very decompressing,” Evans said. 

“I’ve thought about moving,” Evans added. But it’s the boating lifestyle on the water that keeps bringing him back.

“The thing is that 50 weeks a year, it’s perfect — but two weeks a year it’s crappy,” Evans said.

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