Owego, New York
Julie Nucci and Jim Overhiser
Balancing historic preservation with flood mitigation
In September 2011, residents of the Village of Owego, New York experienced Tropical Storm Lee. The Susquehanna River, which runs through Owego, rose to record levels and 95% of the Village was under water. The Susquehanna River in the vicinity of Owego experienced a flood with a 1 in 200 chance of being exceeded in any given year.¹ The first floor of Julie Nucci’s and Jim Overhiser’s home, a historic Greek Revival property built in 1849, was flooded with 3.5 feet of water. After the flood, Ms. Nucci was “absolutely determined to elevate the house,” and was able to do so using federal grants, tax credits, and personal funds. In doing so, the couple reduced the annual flood insurance premium they would have been paying by $3,500. Retaining the home’s original character, the couple also won an award for the renovation and historic preservation.²
The rains brought by Tropical Storm Lee caused record-breaking flooding in Owego, New York, with the Susquehanna River cresting 3.7 feet higher than the previous record, set in 2006. The two-story historic home of Ms. Nucci and Mr. Overhiser, which was built in 1849 with an addition in 1950, was severely damaged by flooding. The couple immediately determined that they would take mitigation actions to lower the risk that a future storm would inflict such significant damage to their home. With the help of a structural engineer, they created a plan to retrofit their home. As Ms. Nucci put it, “It seemed really silly to be vulnerable in the future. And isn’t the definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over and to expect a different result?” As they embarked on the project, there was one unique stipulation – as a historic home in a historic neighborhood, the mitigation measures would need to keep with the character of both the home and the community.
Mitigation project details
The project began in 2012. Contractors started by reviewing the home’s weakest points. A key step was to move the electrical panel, heating system, and hot water heater out of the way of any potential future flooding by building a small addition to house them on the first floor. Next, contractors took on the home elevation. Beams were inserted through holes created in the old foundation to lift underneath the 1849 section of the house. In contrast, beams went through the 1950 section of the house, which was partially deconstructed for the elevation. Contractors filled in the basement and poured a new concrete slab and foundation that included flood vents. A cornerstone removed from the old foundation, engraved “built c. 1849, elevated 2015” was inserted into the poured concrete foundation to commemorate the project. Piers were installed below the porch to support the columns before the house was lowered onto its new foundation. Special care was taken to decrease visual alterations to the historic property, which included stone facing the poured concrete foundation, using fill and stone walls to minimize exposure of the foundation, as well as reusing original materials to the extent possible. The home now sits four feet above grade and was elevated to the Base Flood Elevation (BFE)³ plus 3.5 feet, exceeding local building code requirements.⁴
To pay for these structural improvements, Ms. Nucci and Mr. Overhiser used a combination of personal funds, federal grants, and tax credits. The family invested $100,000 out of pocket for elevation expenses not covered by a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant, including a new garage (the old one was removed to allow the elevation), and landscaping costs. A generous FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant covered 75% of eligible elevation expenses, including foundation work, engineering and landscaping plans, utility relocation, the elevation itself, reconstruction after the elevation, and some landscaping expenses. They also used Increase Cost of Compliance coverage from the NFIP of $30,000.⁵ Finally, as the home is in a historic district, Ms. Nucci and Mr. Overhiser worked with the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to secure nearly $50,000 in tax credits and to ensure the elevation would not compromise the historic character of the house. “I don’t think we could have done it without state historic tax programs,” said Nucci.
3 - Base Flood Elevation (BFE) is the elevation to which floodwater is anticipated to rise during a 1-percent-annual-chance flood. Homeowners can find their BFE here: https://msc.fema.gov/portal
4 - Village of Owego, New York. Code of Ordinances. https://ecode360.com/10890248
5 - FEMA. "Fact Sheet: Increased Cost of Compliance Coverage." https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1447-20490-5393/increasedcostofcompliancecoverage_2012.pdf
Implications for homeowners
Like other homes, historic homes are at risk from flood events. Special care must be given to them, as mitigation measures can impact the character of the property and community. While there are no one-size-fits-all approaches to flood mitigation for historic homes, Julie Nucci and Jim Overhiser knew they needed to take immediate action while also preserving the character of their historic home. They were able to gain support from the SHPO, and win an award for their work from the Preservation Association of the Southern Tier. In addition, they now pay $400 annually for flood insurance for $250,000 in coverage, compared with $3,900 if they had not undertaken such mitigation measures.