First elevated house goes up in Margaretville

By Pauline Liu
The house at 20 Swart Street in Margaretville is like no other, because its foundation has been elevated by four feet. The home, owned by Pam and Jim O’Neal, has caused many to simply stop and stare in amazement. It’s hard to miss, since it’s right next door to the Margaretville Telephone Company, so there’s plenty of traffic passing by. 
The house, where the O’Neals have lived for decades, is in the floodplain and was damaged by the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene last August 28. 

Safety concerns
The village code enforcement officer declared it an unsafe structure and now the O’Neals are working to get it back into compliance. While the project is the first of its kind in Middletown, there will be others, as homeowners continue to repair their flood-damaged residences.

There are many questions that passersby can ask, but the O’Neals get one question in particular. “People want to know what I’m going to do about the garage door,” said Jim, pointing to the garage door that’s dangling four feet off the ground.

By law the house did not have to be elevated quite so high, but the O’Neals chose to jack up the building by four feet because they want to be in compliance with new flood laws, which will take effect this summer. That way, if it should flood again, the O’Neals won’t be asked to elevate their home any higher.

Pam explained that the total project will cost $80,000 and that their flood insurance will cover $30,000.

“I can’t wait until it’s all done,” said Pam. Once the elevation is done, there are still new floors to install and new kitchen cabinets. While the work has gone on, the couple has been able to remain in their home. The project began in late March.

 Bill Archibald of Halcott Center is the contractor on the project. He expects that he and his construction crew, WRA Construction, will wrap up their part of the project sometime next week.
“To elevate this house, it took me, three guys, a Bobcat, I-beams, wooden cribbing, hydraulic jacks, house rollers and some basic everyday hand tools,” said Archibald. 

Tough access
 The contractors had to slide on their stomachs to get into the three-and-a-half-foot crawl space under the house. They built cribbing, made pillars out of cinder block and gradually began to jack the house up.

“The hard thing is getting the original steel set,” he said. “You get in a confined area and you have to work your way through electrical wires, plumbing, septic and heating without tearing anything out because the owners elected to stay in the house.”

Archibald explained that in the aftermath of the flood, there was a lot of “greasy” mud under the house and an underground stream that comes off of Bull Run made the ground soft at times.

 One added benefit of the elevation is that the O’Neals now have a full basement, where there wasn’t one before. According to Archibald, the total cost to elevate was $23,000. However, the contractors still have to build new front and back door entrances and decking for the house which will put the total cost of their job well over $30,000. They’ll also have to lower the front entrance door and the garage door, that so many people have asked about.

“That’s the simplest thing in the whole deal,” he said.    

 According to Archibald, he has done 43 “jack-ups” in the past 15 years, but most of those were the result of frost damage. Cinder block foundations that were not well reinforced would shift or give away after being repeated subjected to extreme temperatures. He uses a technique called “rebarring” to hold cinder block foundations in place. He weaves steel bars through the cinder block and holds it all in place with poured concrete.

Other jobs lined up
As a result of his current project, Archibald already has two more flood elevation jobs waiting. One of them is his daughter, Brenda’s house, in Arkville. 

“I have several people who are interested in the jack-up work, but they have to find out how much money they’ll be getting,” he said.

 On Friday, Shelly Johnson of the Delaware County Planning Department filed 27 applications from Middletown homeowners and businesses seeking buyouts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for their severely flood damaged properties. When contacted by phone last week, Johnson was still tallying the number of applicants seeking to elevate their homes.

“It usually takes six to eight months before they find out if they qualify, because there has to be an assessment for each property,” said Johnson. 

 Since the O’Neals went ahead and did the elevation on their own, they aren’t eligible for the Hazard Mitigation program.

Difficult choice
Johnson explained FEMA might have been able to give the  O’Neals more funding for their elevation than they received from their flood insurance, but they would have had a long wait with much uncertainty. If they waited, their home would have been in code violation and they would have faced fines.

It seems their decision to elevate has put the O’Neals ahead of the game, but they can’t be sure. Pam gave a shrug at the thought. It would just be nice to have their home back in working order.