When Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters ravaged the first floor of Frank Cattie’s Ocean City, N.J., home, he assessed the damage, filed a flood insurance claim, and braced for the financial impact. But he was certain of one thing: He would not give up his slice of Shore heaven.

Cattie and his wife, Susan, who live in Jenkintown, bought a condo in Ocean City in 2000, then traded up for a nearly 100-year-old duplex a block from the bay in 2003. The house on North Street was a refuge — a place to read a book in the sun, relax at the beach, and share laughs with their two children and grandchildren.

Then Sandy’s October 2012 flooding brought more than two feet of water inside and the first floor was ruined. They repaired the home, but Frank had always longed for something new. He retired in 2015 as the global head of sales for Medidata, and two years later, the Catties raised and rebuilt the home. Today, it’s three stories, elevated eight feet, with four balconies that overlook the Shore community.

Hurricane Sandy cleanup in Ocean City, N.J., in November 2012.
Clem Murray / File Photograph
Hurricane Sandy cleanup in Ocean City, N.J., in November 2012.

Despite the changes to the now nearly $1 million home, one feature cannot be altered: the house will always sit in a flood risk zone and could, at any time, face another superstorm.

In the back of your mind, you are worried," said Frank Cattie, standing on his balcony, the sun warming his face and an ocean breeze flowing through the home. "But are you willing to take the risk? Yes, we are.”

The Catties are among the thousands of homeowners living in a flood-risk zone along the Jersey Shore. Ocean City has had 502 homes built in the 10-year flood risk zone since 2009, more than any other city in the United States, according to a recent study by real estate giant Zillow and Climate Central, a New Jersey nonprofit that studies climate science. Just 45 miles north, Beach Haven West, in Stafford Township, saw 447 homes go up in the flood zone during the same time period, the second highest number in the country.

New Jersey ranks first as the state with the most at-risk homes built since 2009: 3,087 homes valued at $3.04 billion. Homes are being constructed in risk zones 3.1 times faster than in “safer areas,” the study says. Although New Jersey’s building was fueled by Sandy recovery, a Climate Central spokesperson said, it’s not alone. North Carolina has seen 1,231 homes built in the risk zone and Florida has had 1,069.

The study shows that the risks of increasingly intense storms, frequent flooding, and rising sea levels across the country are not influencing where people are building. After towns are ravaged by storms and floods, larger, more expensive homes frequently replace the damaged ones, and homeowners often receive government aid to rebuild in areas that will flood again.

Residents say it’s worth the risk

Craig Blanton spent his childhood visiting Manahawkin and Beach Haven West, just across from Long Beach Island, exploring the relatively quiet communities characterized by modest homes along canals and lagoons. After he married his wife, Sue, the Flemington, Pa., couple decided they wanted a place of their own.

They bought a three-bedroom, one-bath home in 2010, but two years later, Sandy hit, flooding the 24-year-old dwelling and washing away the insulation under the house. The Blantons had to replace their floors, sheet rock, and newly renovated kitchen. Then, like Cattie, they decided in 2014 to do a complete renovation. They raised the home eight feet up, modernized the interior, and now have large decks that overlook the bay.

A lifted beachfront home in Beach Haven West, N.J.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
A lifted beachfront home in Beach Haven West, N.J.

All new or reconstructed homes must be elevated at or above the federally mandated levels, which differ by town. Ocean City requires all homes to be raised three feet above the flood insurance-mandated elevation. Homeowners can receive up to $30,000 in federal aid to get their home raised to flood standards, but Blanton said that was only a fraction of what they paid for a lift and upgrade.

Still, the decision to rebuild in a flood zone was a no-brainer for the Blantons. “I’m not going to be deterred,” said Craig Blanton, who was a school administrator before he retired. “I’ve been coming down here 50, 60 years and it’s become a part of my life.”

“Being on the water is being on the water. There aren’t too many places like this," he said.

While the Blantons have a generational connection to Beach Haven West, many long-time residents who couldn’t afford to fix their homes were forced to sell after Sandy. The once-sleepy town is now packed with expensive homes. Beach Haven West’s median home value is $396,400, which is 30% higher than what it was in October 2012, according to Zillow.

“It’s definitely changed. The way it looks, the demographic. There are some houses that are getting close to being over the million-dollar mark,” said Blanton.

And the residents moving there don’t seem too concerned with the flood or storm risks, said Joe Mellone, owner of PDC Builders, who renovated the Blantons’ home.

“I don’t see a lot of concern, because everything that’s being built is being built above flood level,” said Mellone. He said that the height of a home’s lift is driven by the owner’s budget and flood insurance costs. "It’s never been hampered by ‘will this place flood again.’”

Home builder Joe Mellone in front of Craig and Sue Blanton's raised and renovated bayfront home in Beach Haven West.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Home builder Joe Mellone in front of Craig and Sue Blanton's raised and renovated bayfront home in Beach Haven West.

Mellone’s home in Beach Haven West was also flooded by Sandy. When asked if he had any worries about living in a vulnerable location, he said: "None whatsoever, and I think that’s the general consensus.”

Scott Halliday of Halliday-Leonard General Contractors said the same of his Ocean City customers, who include Frank Cattie. He said people “don’t have their heads in the sand,” but the attractiveness of the ocean far outweighs living inland.

“It’s a really special place, so they’re wanting to be here. And you know, it’s our job to make sure that they have a safe place to occupy,” said Halliday.

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'It’s trying to empty the ocean with a bucket’

Hurricanes have always existed, but now million-dollar homes are in their path. Since 1950, the government has paid at least $500 billion in hurricane and storm disaster aid, and more than $350 billion in the last decade, wrote journalist Gilbert Gaul in his recent book, The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts.

“Places would get hit, and they’d slowly rebuild, but now the whole calculus has changed because there is so much property and so much money in it," said Gaul, a former Inquirer reporter. "We’ve turned this into an industry, a disaster industry. I call it disaster capitalism.”

Lifted beachfront homes in Manahawkin, N.J.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Lifted beachfront homes in Manahawkin, N.J.

One New Jersey program has tried to mitigate the damage. After Sandy, then-Gov. Chris Christie committed up to $300 million to the state’s Blue Acres Buyout Program, a Department of Environmental Protection initiative that offers to buy clusters of storm-damaged homes from residents in high-risk flooding areas. Since its founding in 1995, Blue Acres has closed on 699 homes across the state, mostly along the bay and creeks that frequently flood — but this is a drop in the bucket compared with the 3,087 new homes in New Jersey that have gone up in 10-year flood risk zones since 2009, said Jeff Tittle, president of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

“For every property they’re buying out, they’re putting up 20 more,” said Tittle. “It’s trying to empty the ocean with a bucket.”

Shore towns have dedicated millions to mitigating flooding and sea level rise, adding pumping stations to remove floodwaters more quickly, raising roads and bulkhead heights, and restoring protective dunes. Ocean City budgeted $25 million in paving and drainage improvements and $7 million for dredging in its five-year capital plan, which began this year. In 2017, the Army Corps of Engineers embarked on a $13.4 million project replenishing sand and dunes in Ocean City, the eighth since the 1990s, according to its website.

“Yeah, you can argue, ‘We elevated, we’re doing mitigation, we’re being smarter about building back,’” said Gaul. “But in the end, everything is back on a coastal floodplain. In a flood hazard zone.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.