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Key to Sandy recovery lies in Levittown

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The Star-LedgerMark Di Ionno for The Star-Ledger

Lou DiGeronimo's Sandy recovery plan wasn't new. The Paramus architect is an old pro who believed in a common sense solutions: Come up with a few standard models, buy and construct in bulk, streamline the permit process and get people back home.

Rome wasn't built in a day, but Levittowns – soup-to-nut cities of 50,000 people – were built in three years or less. Why should this disaster recovery take so long?

History was on DiGeronimo's side. In April 1906, half of San Francisco's population of 250,000 was left homeless after a historic earthquake and fire. Within months, the U.S. Army and the city parks department hammered out 5,300 durable wooden shacks, first put in camps, then successfully moved to properties around the city. How durable? One just sold in Telegraph Hill for $765,000.

In this century, Marianne Cusato, a designer and professor of practice at Notre Dame's School of Architecture, did something similar after Hurricane Katrina. She designed 14 models of Katrina Cottages, ranging from 600 to 1,200 square feet. Three hundred permanent structures were built in Louisiana; a few hundred of her mobile units replaced FEMA trailers in Mississippi.

She's been lobbying for a national disaster "playbook" ever since.

"We know disasters of this magnitude are going to happen," she said. "Yet, each time we reinvent the wheel. We need a playbook, a streamlined system that will get people back home in every state and every town in every disaster."

After Hurricane Sandy, Cusato attempted to implement her cottage idea in New Jersey. She spent nine months in Union Beach and got six – not 600, six – homes built before she gave up. The levels of bureaucracy, from federal to local, was "disheartening."

"There has to be a way to unpeel these layers and get people back in dignified homes quickly," Cusato said. "But with every massive disaster, we seem to be caught flat-footed."

DiGeronimo is a Columbia-educated architect and no stranger to the idea of smart, uniformed construction. He and his wife Suzanne own DiGeronimo PC Architects and have 90 years of experience between them. Lou DiGeronimo was a member of the team that wrote the state's uniformed building codes in the mid-'70s.

Since uniformity often translates to efficiency, DiGeronimo saw the Sandy recovery as a chance to build quality houses quickly on the massive scale needed to get people back in their homes.

"The recovery was basically a $3 billion federal housing project and it should have been run that way," he said.

DiGeronimo came up with six prototypes for wind- and flood-resistant houses, all to be elevated on steel helical piles, which would be screwed into the ground and have a steel house frame bolted to them.

"It was cost effective, satisfied all FEMA requirements and could be built all year round," DiGeronimo said. "The supplies – the windows, doors, everything – could have been bought in bulk. The permit and coding process could have been streamlined, and we wouldn't have the mess we have today.

"Instead, it takes every single homeowner nine months to go through the local planning board and get the permits, and submit drawings, and, if one little thing is wrong, you go to the back of the line," he said. "And these people are trying to do this all while they're displaced."

He tried to get the state interested in such a process, but it went nowhere. DiGeronimo isn't even sure where it died, only that the Department of Community Affairs "refused to sit down with us." 

DiGeronimo said this as he walked through Union Beach, where 1,500 homes were badly damaged by Sandy. Now, three years later, the evidence of its impact is all around: vacant lots, boarded-up homes and the sounds of demolition and construction filling the air.

And not just in Union Beach, but in Highlands, where a new demolition contract has just been rewarded to take down a few dozen destroyed properties. And in Mantoloking and Ortley Beach, and Shore Acres in Brick, and the Silverton section of Toms River, and in Beach Haven West and Mystic Island.

In all these places – and in Moonachie and Little Falls, and the Ironbound section of Newark where wrecked homes remain boarded up and untouched – the question remains, "What's taking so long?"

Bill Levitt, the father of modern suburbia, built his cities in less time on potato and corn fields in Long Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The three Levittowns (New Jersey's changed its name back to Willingboro) had about 17,000 homes, new water and sewer lines, roads and sidewalks, and schools and other public buildings.Yet three years after Sandy – and 10 years after Katrina – the scars of destruction remain visible and thousands of people are still homeless.

And for those who argue that cookie-cutter homes would be an aesthetic insult to the Jersey Shore ... please.

Excise beachfront mansions from the equation and you'll find that many of the beach and bay-front communities devastated by the hurricane were developed in exactly the same way. Quickly, uniformly and efficiently.  

DiGeronimo and Cusato both think such an approach would actually improve the aesthetic.

In Union Beach, DiGeronimo stood at the beachfront, where he envisioned two vacant lots being turned into a welcoming green space that opens the vista of the Raritan Bay. The mishmash of homes nearby – some still vacant – do not reflect a style or period, such as, say, a place like Ocean Grove.

"We had a chance to build it safer and better, and we blew it," said DiGeronimo. "Instead, we have chaos."

"We had designs that treat the home with reverence," Cusato said. "They fit the architecture of the area. These were not shipping container homes or art school projects. They were dignified structures."

Cusato asks why disaster recovery is not a national campaign issue. It's a good question, considering the magnitude of problems with Katrina and Sandy during two administrations.

"We haven't gotten this right," she said. "And it's going to happen again. We need a preemptive plan, so when the disaster happens, we're ready with home models that can be adapted to the region."


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The Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey (SHA) is a statewide, nonprofit organization, founded in 1998, whose mission is to promote and maintain a strong supportive housing industry in New Jersey serving people with special needs.


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