Lose Home, Rebuild, Repeat: Scituate House Cost Federal Government $750K Over 40 Years

March 9, 2014

If you look at it now, the home at 48 Oceanside Drive in Scituate — with its beige siding and bright, white trim — seems so new it must be empty inside.

From its perch on the beach, the home seems to stare blankly at the ocean. It's a great view, with stunning beaches and dramatic cliffs. But with that view comes danger.

Rick Murray, a Boston University earth and environment professor and Scituate selectman, believes this home probably should have never been built there. 

This report is from our partners at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting

"Its shoreline faces exactly northeast, perpendicular to the direction of the wind and the waves that come in," Murray said. "And its latitude is such that it's a little north of the tip of Cape Cod, so there's absolutely no protection from the wide-open north Atlantic Ocean."

Dwight D. Eisenhower was president when this house was bought by a successful accountant from Arlington. His family enjoyed the house for many years, but then the property's trials of death and rebirth began.

First, the home burned down and was rebuilt. Then the blizzard of '78 hit. The house at 48 Oceanside Drive was leveled again.

Then-owner David Cooney had one advantage in what would be a long fight against nature: the National Flood Insurance Program. Cooney filed a claim, but he says he can't remember how much money he got to rebuild. Whatever it was, it helped him construct a retirement home on the site of 48 Oceanside Drive.

But Mother Nature wasn't done. In 1991 the nor'easter known as the Perfect Storm severely damaged the home, and Cooney sold it.

Like the changing weather, time didn't standstill either. George H.W. Bush is now President and the next owner, Joseph Pizziferri, repaired the damage. But 48 Oceanside got hit by storms — not just once or twice, but three times. Pizziferri says the flood insurance program's payouts didn't always cover the cost of repairs. So, like the previous owner, Pizziferri sold.

'The National Flood Insurance Program actually has more policies then we have cash on hand.'

More time goes by and now Bill Clinton is President. An accountant from Quincy bought the house for $465,000. Donald Craig Jr. was told he'd have to pay $12,000 annually in insurance premiums. But Craig was able to argue the property should have what's called "grandfather" status — in other words, it was built to code based on flood maps in effect at the time of the home's original construction. He got his premiums cut in half — to about $6,000 a year.

Under Craig’s watch the home was damaged several times by storms, but he got insurance payouts to help with repairs. The flood insurance program gave him $40,000 more toward the cost of elevating the house.

As the 2008 presidential race heated up, Craig sold the house to Gary and Margaret Motyl of Florida for $1.2 million. Since then it's been hit twice by storms — most recently in early 2013, causing $160,000 in damage. Federal payouts helped with repairs.

Adding it all up — the four decades of destruction and repair — the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found the home at 48 Oceanside Drive has been damaged at least nine times, and the federal flood insurance program likely spent $750,000 to rebuild it.

Costs like that, combined with the massive expense of rebuilding nationwide from Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, drowned the National Flood Insurance Program. At a conference, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said the insurance program was $24 billion in debt.

"The National Flood Insurance Program actually has more policies then we have cash on hand," he said.

Congress voted to boost premiums for homeowners to pay for the true risk of living in flood-prone areas. FEMA updated its maps of areas prone to flooding and, consequently, many insurance rates went up. Thousands more homeowners had to sign up for flood insurance.

"That's the wake up call," said Jack Clarke of the conservation group Mass Audubon.

Clarke says homeowners were shocked — and they let their senators and representatives know. The backlash was strong enough for the U.S. House to vote last week to limit flood insurance rate increases for most policy holders. The Senate is expected to vote this week. Clarke says lawmakers are "essentially kicking the can down the road."

Murray, the Sciuate selectman, believes homeowners living by the beach need to be moved off the coast — but that isn't an easy thing to tell people.

"There are some people who come up to me in the grocery store and express their counter-opinions very strongly about even entertaining discussions about doing something different," he said.

Some argue problems with the federal flood insurance program are exaggerated. Bed and breakfast owner Doris Crary says that's because it's perceived to benefit rich people. Crary lives down the street from 48 Oceanside Drive, and says the flood insurance program could recover.

"If we go through a period where we have fewer losses for years, then that money will be there to pay down that debt and it will ultimately disappear," she said.

Meanwhile at 48 Oceanside Drive, the current owner is hoping the federal government will pitch in what construction experts say is as much as $80,000 toward the cost of elevating the home again, this time hopefully higher than the waves that the next big storm will bring.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University and the studios of WGBH News.

State Rep. James Cantwell, who represents Scituate, and Jack Clarke, the director of public policy at the Mass Audubon Society, joined Greater Boston to talk about repeated flood insurance payouts:

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