Monday, December 31, 2012

Old Cottage and the Sea - Part 2

Hurricane Sandy's projected storm surge in southern
New Jersey (October 29, 2012). Courtesy of

I waited out Hurricane Sandy in my home in northern New Jersey, while the storm ravaged the coastline. The shore towns were under a mandatory evacuation order – something especially important to observe on barrier islands like Ocean City, where danger comes from both the sea and the bay.

Back at home in my northern suburb, well inland, I assumed full preparedness mode for the second time. After tying down all the outdoor furniture, I moved all of my computers, boxes of critical files and project binders from my third floor office to a pile in the front parlor. I spent the night of the superstorm sleepless on my living room couch, possessed by a vision of me lying on my bed on the second floor, crushed under the fallen boughs of one of the 150 year-old pin oaks that line the driveway. I didn't think much about the house in Ocean City – I'd done as much as I could do, after all.

Damage Report

The next morning, I was relieved to see our neighborhood had survived intact, except for one large tree that had fallen at the bottom of the street. We still had power, unlike 80% of northern New Jersey. I spent the day moving my office back upstairs, box by box. I checked in with an Ocean City friend who had evacuated inland. She reported that her family was fine. I didn't bother to call my neighbors in OC -- I expected that they had evacuated, too. I would have to wait to find out how my house had fared. 

The first Ocean City report came on Wednesday, two days after the storm. Major cleanup efforts required that access be limited to the island, but finally the police had opened it up to residents. We needed to show identification and proof of residency before you could enter the 9th Street causeway. I was frustrated by the news reports on OC - my section of town was never mentioned. “Things must be bad, very bad,” I thought. ”They can't even get up to the north end of the island....”

A beach front home at the north end of Ocean City after Super Storm Sandy.
Later in the day, neighbors who had ridden out the storm on the island called to say that my cottage looked fine, although it had taken on some 2 feet of water during the flooding. The eye of the storm had passed just north of Ocean City, which spared us from the worst of the storm surge that battered coastal towns north of us. The house is seven blocks from the sea, so it was the bay that had inundated my house, bubbling up through the storm sewers and percolating up through the wet sand under my house. Well, at least it didn't float away, I thought. Later I learned that this was not such a far-fetched idea.

Having breathed a sign of relief, I didn't intend to go to OC for a few days. I was still focused on putting my office back to rights. My good friend, however – a native of the island and a veteran of several hurricanes there – urged me to put that all aside and get down to the island immediately.

You've got to get down here,” she said, her voice exasperated. “You have to get the carpets and drywall out of there before the mold sets in.” Horrified by the thought of that black stuff growing all over everything, I threw some work clothes into a duffle bag and left that afternoon for Ocean City.

It was Thursday, Day 3 after the storm. Before I arrived, my friend and a neighbor had opened the windows to ventilate the house. They had been amazingly kind - they rolled up an area rug soggy with bay water and carried it outside. It weighed a ton. I was so grateful.

Living room after SS Sandy, showing level of floodwater.
There is no odor quite so sickly-sweet as a house saturated with stale floodwater. You can smell it 50 feet away. It carries with it the oil and dirt from the street, toxins, bacteria, and sometimes even raw sewage, although our section was spared that nightmare. 

The wall-to-wall carpeting in my living room was squishy with the skanky water, as were the upholstered frames of my two brand-new couches. I had moved the cushions upstairs before the storm, but the couches were too heavy. In my haste to leave, I had left the slipcovers on the frames – “Well, that was stupid,” I said out loud, to no one in particular. The dining room still had a puddle under the dining table, but the new mahogany flooring looked otherwise intact. Thankfully, the weather had turned cold, so that no mold had appeared yet anywhere that I could see.

I began to equip myself for the task of cleaning up the mess. Usually I love my shopping trips to the hardware store down here – it always marks the beginning of some interesting cottage project. This, however, was not fun. It was driven by desperation. The stench of floodwater permeated my nest, my haven, my blessed retreat. I couldn't rest until it had been ripped out and carted off to the dumpsters that stood around town. 
Dumpsters were placed around Ocean City to collect cleanup debris.
The first purchase was an N-95 mask/respirator, which protects against inhaling mold spores – it was the main fashion statement of Ocean City that week. No self-respecting islander could be seen without it. I threw three boxes of heavy duty garbage bags into the shopping cart – they were the last boxes on the shelf - as well as a fancy utility knife to cut the wet wallboard away from the dry sections. The final items thrown in were several pairs of heavy duty waterproof gloves. When I returned to the cottage, I immediately donned my work clothes and safety equipment. I retrieved the steel-toed boots that I keep in my car and laced them up. I would not take them off for the next five days, except when I slept.

The Cleanup

During cleanup, I took the walls down to the framing. I carted out bag after bag of wet insulation and  drywall. The wall board had to be cut out to a height 2 ft. above the flood level, since the water wicked upwards through the absorbent wall board. I discovered that in my frenzy to leave before the storm, I had totally ignored my downstairs utility closet, where I stored my brand new toolbox and my tidy, newly reorganized plastic boxes of screws, washers, picture hooks and other hardware. I discovered that they were filled to the brim with dirty water. I dumped out the boxes, hoping that my beloved tools would eventually dry off and be useful again, although the little stuff was a total loss. I also cleared out some 43 cans of used paint - some more than 10 years old. Only the gods know why I kept those!

The still-wet contents of the utility closet.
I worked on cleanup from early morning until around 4:30 pm, when the November light faded. Everyone on the island was similarly occupied – people in their N-95 masks were cleaning out storefronts, homes, and garages. I saw more neighbors out and about than I had ever seen in the 10 years I had owned the house. We chatted about our damage over brief, but good-natured, "we're-all-in-this-together" pleasantries.

Exposed original framing of the living room.
As physically challenging as the clean-up was, the payoff for me was learning the story of the cottage, written in the layers I peeled away. In one corner, I found some ersatz wood paneling that had been installed over a section of original 19th C. plaster and lath. Where the lath had been removed, a piece of greenboard was nailed onto the studs, probably to “even out the layers.” Over the whole layer cake of materials, someone had put up panels of gyp board.

One of the ca. 1950s layers and corroded electrical receptacle.
The built-in ca. 1950s bookcase that covered one wall was constructed on top of (yes, on top of ... ) a layer of orange wall-to-wall carpeting from a previous generation. The orange fuzz that peeked out from under the bookshelves was still oozing that stale wetness over the floor. The subfloor was plywood – no doubt a re-do from previous damage. And, last but not least, after my neighbor had helped remove the plywood, we discovered the weirdest assembly of floor joists underneath – some were old ones sistered together; some were new pine insertions. The center floor support was a plank resting on occasional cinder blocks. I hesitated to look at the foundation.

The bottom half of the original 1880s framing in the living room having been fully revealed, I moved on to the dining room. The mahogany flooring was in great shape, but the walls, like those in the living room, were a confection of historical layers. Drywall covered a rustic wainscot of random board-and-batten. It looked like the owner had used whatever size planking was available. Beneath that, a layer of paper, which appeared to date from the early 20th C, probably some time after the cottage had been moved to its present site.

The mahogany floor in the dining room came through unscathed.
The most dismaying revelation in the dining room was the slash of daylight between the studs at the base of the north wall. The sill – the framing that sits on the foundation and supports the building – had obviously rotted away at that spot. "Uh oh," my heart murmured. What if the front room sill also suffered from the same malady? I refused to dwell on that possibility. Getting back to normal was no longer just a question of replacing drywall. This was getting more serious.

What to do?

The trauma of removing and carting away smelly, soggy drywall had inspired me, like Scarlett O'Hara, to vow "Never again!" I still believed the building should not be elevated, since that would alter its historic relationship to the site - a bad thing. I am a historic preservation specialist, so my cottage is not only a place to relax, but it's also my laboratory, where the choices I make reflect the same preservation standards that govern my clients' projects. It's a life-sized example of how the principles work in practice.

I began to immerse myself in publications that promised to make buildings more resilient to flooding. Most of these are produced by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), whose publications on water-resistant materials, wet- and dry-floodproofing, elevating buildings have influenced a generation of municipalities and building owners. Also extremely helpful was the insights from contractors from the island, who had considerable experience in what worked and what didn't in the coastal areas. I am fortunate to have a native Ocean City resident as my contractor and friend, who has provide enormous support to my effort.

Still life with garbage bag.
The plans for rebuilding are still taking shape - I feel it necessary to examine every option while the building lays open and I can see all the framing. It's an optimum time to upgrade the brown, 1960s triple-track windows with insulated 2/2 replacements, similar to the ones I had put in the addition. It's also a good time to replace the front door - a wood veneer relic of the same era as the windows - maybe with a fiberglass door that would be more flood-resistant. I'll probably put a mahogany floor in the living room, since the one in the dining room performed so well. And I finally can rebuild the stairs and bannister to the second floor, which has always been high on my list of future renovations. As for the foundation and floor joists - well, that's the big issue we have yet to solve. 

I am hoping that we can figure all this out and get it finished before summer comes. I miss my little cottage and the beautiful New Jersey shore. 

(Update 11/8/13: The next installment of The Old Cottage and the Sea (Part 3 - Floodproofing) has been posted. It walks through the strategies and treatments for making the cottage more resilient in the event of future floods. It starts with FEMA guidance, but then applies it to the real life issues faced in the case study. The decisions may surprise the purists among you, but the result is a historic building that is better prepared for a future disaster.)


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the update, Mary. I was wondering how your place weathered the storm. Good luck on the repairs.