It’s All About the Elevation

    Once upon a time, Northeast Florida residents believed that we were immune from the damages caused by hurricanes. Our area of Florida, along the Atlantic coast, isn’t the typical landfall point for hurricanes and hadn’t historically seen damage like the Gulf Coast or South Florida areas had. Then came Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017.

    Residents of coastal St. Augustine, mainly those in the historic neighborhoods of America’s Oldest City and those living in desirable Davis Shores across the bay as well as folks living in the Intracoastal neighborhoods of Crescent Beach, Treasure Beach and Butler Beach south of St. Augustine Beach, found their homes flooded as the inland waters rose during Hurricane Matthew. Along the St. Johns River in western St. Johns County, the same effects of a rising inland waterway flooded homes in that area. Hurricane Matthew hit at the height of a high tide and timing could not have been worse.

    Even with these conditions, though, the majority of St. Augustine and St. Johns County residents saw no damage from the hurricane, and while Hurricane Irma the following year caused similar damage to some of the same areas, her effects were not as widespread and generally felt less with resulting damages being less.

    Interestingly, high winds, typically thought to cause quite a bit of damage during a hurricane, were not a major issue from either Matthew or Irma for Northeast Florida. Locals learned that one thing was key to whether they’d be dealing with major damage or not- elevation of their homes and buildings.FEMA and local building codes require a finished floor of a home or commercial building to be built to a minimum height to avoid flooding, meaning the structure will be higher than the “base flood elevation”.  That minimum floor height requirement can change over time. Older properties in Northeast Florida were often built with lower elevations as the risk of flooding then was lower. Neighborhoods in historic areas of St. Augustine and Jacksonville, for example, often feature concrete block construction with “slab on grade” foundations leaving no space between the ground and the structure’s floor. Picture a 1950’s Mad Men ranch-style home, a look very much in demand with today’s buyers.

    Of course, historic St. Augustine’s structures can date back several hundreds of years. Those early residents, though, understood the dangers that could come with rising floodwaters in a coastal city. Many of the areas within and surrounding downtown St. Augustine, areas where you may expect most homes to have flooded, weathered both storms well. Builders and owners had the foresight to raise their structures high off the ground with a crawl space underneath, and again- elevation is key.

    We also found after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma that it is critical to work with a real estate professional who is well informed on that all important “base flood elevation”. How do I obtain a building’s elevation? What effects can elevation can have on your insurance premiums? What if any flood damage did the structure and neighborhood have? What are the implications of a structure not meeting current minimum finished floor elevation requirements? What limitations will I face in renovating a structure that sits below minimum required finished floor elevation?

    At 97Park, we make it our business to become knowledgable on issues that can affect a property’s value, and we make it our business to fully educate our customers on those issues. In fact, Karen Zander, broker/owner of 97Park, sat on the City of St. Augustine board responsible for reviewing floodplain management practices after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma and was instrumental in making recommendations to the City leadership on changes to better protect St. Augustine’s buildings from future flooding. Karen was also previously a member of the City of St. Augustine Beach Planning and Zoning Board and currently sits on the City of St. Augustine Planning and Zoning Board. If she doesn’t know the answer, she absolutely knows where to find it or whom to call!

    Overall, St. Augustine and its beaches areas as well as Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra and the neighboring beach towns survived both recent hurricanes with minimal damages. However- knowing why some homes and businesses were hard hit and why some areas did not fare well makes all the difference. Make sure that you’re working with someone who knows the right questions to ask and where to obtain the info critical to you making an informed decision and can put you in touch with experts who can educate you on your options.

    Don’t find out after it’s too late that it’s all about the elevation.

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