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Years after floods, South Jersey residents along Rancocas Creek get aid to lift houses

In Lumberton, NJ, some homeowners endured a long wait to get FEMA assistance.

Nate Champ, with  Wolfe House & Building Movers, places boards under a home for support while raising a house on Church Street , Lumberton, off  its foundation on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Nate Champ, with Wolfe House & Building Movers, places boards under a home for support while raising a house on Church Street , Lumberton, off its foundation on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.Read moreWILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For the Inquirer

As her two-story, 18th-century house rose skyward, lifted up inch-by-inch out of the floodplain along the Rancocas Creek, Lisa Liebehenz reflected on just how long it had taken to get the wood-frame structure that once served as a parsonage out of harm's way.

"It's going to be a relief when this is finally finished," said Liebehenz, 54, who bought the Lumberton Township home in 1996 with her husband, Glenn. "When I hear a weather report, I won't have to worry anymore about how much it's going to rain."

Liebehenz's project is among three along the Rancocas Creek in the Burlington County town. More than a dozen years since the first of four floods broke dams upstream and created havoc here, she and the other homeowners received a total of more than a half million dollars in FEMA assistance to lift their homes from their original foundations.

The idea is to lift the houses high enough so that if the waters rise again, living spaces won't be affected.

Houses on Church Street in Lumberton, along Rancocas Creek, are being raised

Staff Graphic

One of the projects, located along a lane called Ed Brown’s Meadow, is completed. The two others, both along Church Street — another narrow lane between the meandering Rancocas Creek and Main Street in this rural Burlington County town — are in varying stages of completion.

Nate Champ of Wolfe House & Building Movers works equipment Friday, Sept. 29, 2017, to raise a house on Church Street, Lumberton, NJ, to prevent future flood damage from the Rancocas Creek.

The most severe of the floods came in 2004, when clay dams broke upstream and a wall of water rose from the usually lazy creek. The Rancocas spilled over onto miles of Burlington County — including areas not considered in a flood zone — damaging houses and washing away bridges and roads.

Liebehenz remembers a subsequent storm-driven flood that seemed to rise up from the earth, filling her basement and covering the first floor in a couple of feet of water.

“It’s been a really long road for all of us living along this creek,” Liebehenz said one recent afternoon as she watched workmen from Wolfe House & Building Movers, a Bernville, Berks County, contractor, begin hoisting her circa 1784 house off its foundation.

It took about two work days for the seven-room house to be lifted about four feet. Another contractor, Penn Smith LLC of Langhorne, will build a new concrete foundation and finish the other structural work on the property before the couple and their daughter can move back. The rehab will cost $220,000.

While public infrastructure was repaired quickly following the floods, many homeowners found it challenging to obtain grants and loans to repair their houses through the National Flood Insurance Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some homeowners, including a couple of Liebehenz’s neighbors, themselves paid to lift their houses.

Others, including the Liebehenzes and their neighbor, Cheyenne DiEnno, spent years plowing through local, state, and federal red tape to obtain what they contend is their due for paying years of flood insurance premiums. In all three cases in the current Lumberton project, the homeowners have had to obtain private funding to pay for the contracting work upfront and then be reimbursed through FEMA as each stage of work was completed.

DiEnno said that while she is grateful her project finally got underway in the summer — after 13 years of fighting to get FEMA’s attention and writing to everyone from township officials to the president — she’s unhappy with the outcome.

Her kitchen floor slopes nearly two inches from one end to the other, she said, and that has caused cracks in her granite kitchen counters and created structural damage. Doors won’t shut because walls are off-kilter.

“This entire process has been extremely stressful and very disheartening,” said DiEnno. The original section of the 3,000-square-foot house was built about 100 years ago as a summer home. There have been additions since DiEnno bought the property in 1985. Besides the work Penn Smith did, DiEnno, 65, and her partner, David Bjornsson, who used to operate a deck-building business, built a small addition, a foyer, to replace some of the square footage lost when the house-lift took away their basement.

She blames Penn Smith for the problems.

Sam Smith, who owns Penn Smith, said in a telephone interview that the issues with DiEnno’s house have to do with its age and the condition of the structure’s beams, not work his firm did after Wolfe lifted the structure.

“It’s unfortunate and I’m very sorry that Cheyenne is unhappy with the result, but the existing conditions in the structure created the gap in the floor and other problems, not the work we did there,” Smith said.

It’s unclear how the issue will be resolved, but Susan Mazzitelli, a Yardley floodplain project manager hired by the township, called the work “a very emotional process.”

“People in this process have endured so much. … And it’s a process that takes so long, from securing the funding to finally getting the work done and being able to move back into your home,” Mazzitelli said.

Meantime, since the first major flood in Lumberton, in 2004, a number of national weather catastrophes have occurred, including Hurricane Sandy, that seemingly pushed the Lumberton project to the bottom of the list.

After Sandy, 7,000 homes in New Jersey were placed in a FEMA-funded program, administered by the state Department of Community Affairs, called Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM). Many of those properties either have been or are in the process of being lifted to comply with new flood-zone standards.

According to the National Flood Insurance program, 14,800 buildings in New Jersey have been damaged by floods two or more times over the last decade, with more than 4,300 damaged at least four times.