This month, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced 26 hazard-mitigation elevation grants of up to $30,000 each for Brigantine, the first of 630 more - including 90 in Brigantine - in nine hardest-hit counties.
"Lifting the Jersey Shore one house at a time" is the truck slogan of house lifter Dave Bush.
At busy Mase Builders, Dave Hughes is point man for a huge elevation case file. Mase has lifted about 20 houses and has 50 in various stages, 300 more in the computer awaiting funding.
Raising the houses to adhere to new base flood elevation requirements set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency accomplishes two things: getting the houses out of the next storm's way and stabilizing insurance rates.
"Life in the air is fine," said Lee Popick, 58, of 535 Lafayette, a few doors down, one of the first to get back up and in. His new raised reality began two months ago. "It's kind of nice up here. You get a nice view. More wind."
While Hughes juggles all the clients, Chuck Hall oversees the crew that knocks through corners of foundations with sledgehammers, slides metal beams underneath, positions hydraulic jacks, builds Jenga-like wooden crisscross cribbing, and, with hydraulic pressure, cranks houses up eight inches at a time, filling in the cribbing underneath.
On any given week, houses in Brigantine will be in various stages of being lifted, brought back snug onto newly laid cement block foundations, a dozen or so new steps built, often with a landing halfway.
Like the houses, not everything is set in stone. "Up in the air is when a lot of decisions get made," Hughes says.
On Thursday at 113 Bayshore Ave., the Mase crew was at work on a little rancher, breaking up its concrete porch and removing the Tennessee stone from its lower half. In an afternoon chill, the house was separated from its base.
Quieter than you might imagine, the initial lift was a few popping of bolts and the whine of hydraulics. In a matter of minutes, the house was suspended a few inches off its base, revealing rotting wood and dangling pipes. Two hours later, the house was up nearly five feet. [See video at www.philly.com/downashore.]
The workers went from crawling underneath a house suspended just above a little trench, to crouching, to standing slumped-shouldered, to, finally, standing straight.
Hall and son Ryan man the hydraulics with hands and feet, measure with a surveyor, add an inch to a corner, four to another, argue over whether the surveyor used data from 1929 or 1988. They wedge in wood ties - as Papa Hall directs with off-color metaphors.
"These are going up like crazy all over town," said neighbor Gail DeRitis, 61, who will not be lifting her rancher. "That rancher there, it looks like a huge monster. But it's not. It's still just a little rancher - just 10 feet up in the air."
As Paul Kramer, 58, loads up his jitney to vacate his house for lifting, and firefighter John Hopkins works to finish post-elevation work before his winter rental lease is up, the fraction of residents who are back testify to a new perspective.
From his deck, Popick can look down on the bigger, mostly undamaged, houses across the street and get a view of the bay.
"Hello to my minions!" he called out wryly. "I can see clearly now."
Marge McCarthy, 69, said her house was colder up a flight, the floors a tad icy, susceptible to the howling winds of a Shore winter.
There is hope that Brigantine's pest - the Greenhead - might not follow to this rarefied air. "They tell me if you get up 10 foot they're not as bad as when you're on the ground," said John Roguszewski, 70, who used his IRA to go up an extra foot to be able to stand in the new basement.
"I've got a cellar again," says Ed Rehill. "I haven't had a cellar since I left Philadelphia."
Ryan Penn of Mobility 123 said his Absecon company has installed 15 wheelchair lifts, which cost about $15,000 depending on height, and 50 stair lifts as a result of Sandy elevations. "We expect that to double or triple in 2014," he said.
City Engineer Ed Stinson said that of 273 substantially damaged homes, 60 had been or were being demolished and 75 were being elevated. A portion of the rest "may be working through the grant process," he said.
Hazard-mitigation grants cannot be awarded to anyone receiving state-administered RREM grants, so some on that waiting list are holding off. House lifting starts at about $25,000; prep and post-lift costs can add $10,000 to $20,000 more.
The DEP's Scott Brubaker, elevation grant manager, said that the $30,000 grants were an incentive for primary homeowners to guard against future storms and that there are no income or damage criteria. Residents must front the cost. Insurance offers $30,000 to comply with new elevations.
The grants call for the same environmental reviews that jammed up RREM funds, but Brubaker says FEMA, not private firms, will do those.
Marge McCarthy can get up stairs but decided to get a wheelchair lift, hidden in a white silo. Because she was a victim of Sandy, not disability, there was some confusion in ordering.
"The woman said, 'I don't have your prescription yet from your doctor,' " she said. "I said, 'I don't have a prescription.' I asked the installer, could it be faster? He said, it's a wheelchair lift, not entertainment."
It's a long minute - a button continually pressed - up to a front door that once sat on the ground. "They're pretty unattractive," she said. She hopes the lift aids older visitors and eases bringing in groceries and luggage.
Strategies vary to mask the disproportions of their houses. Some enclose part of the staircase; others extend siding as though the house had two stories. Some try lattice; others go for garages.
Capelli-Brehm covered her expanded facade with brick, but it looks slightly off: one part siding to about six parts brick. She hopes trees will help.
The new height makes McCarthy feel safer - and not just from flooding. "I used to worry about people coming through my house, driving drunk," she said. "I used to feel like I'm sleeping on the lawn. Now I'm up on the roof."
Raising the Roofs
Hazard-mitigation grants for house-elevation applications by municipality.
Toms River . . . 872
Brick . . . 610
Little Egg Harbor Twp. . . . 327
Union Beach . . . 316
Stafford Twp. . . . 293
Brigantine . . . 244
Lavallette . . . 225
Highlands . . . 186
Ventnor . . . 184
Point Pleasant . . . 171
SOURCE: New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
Sandy isn't driving the boom in Shore teardowns. Alan J. Heavens, Real Estate, J5.
See a video of a house being raised at www.inquirer.com/downashore