The fire that gutted Jennifer Taylor's home last August destroyed nearly everything her family owned. And it got harder from there.
Three months later, the stucco house still stands in Sacramento's Natomas neighborhood, its roof mostly intact but everything beneath it a charred shell. The Taylors are living a few blocks away in a home rented by their insurance company. They have no idea how long this will continue, or if the burned-out house will eventually ruin their finances.
That is because, as Taylor has learned in the ensuing months, it can literally take an act of Congress to rebuild a home destroyed by fire in Natomas, the deep flood basin north of downtown Sacramento.
Taylor and her husband, Brad, have owned the modest 1,100-square-foot home on Azevedo Drive for 14 years. The fire, likely caused by a wiring problem, ravaged the home and incinerated their belongings, including the baby pictures of their two preschool-age children.
"Fortunately, it happened in the middle of the day and we were out grocery shopping," said Taylor, 38. "I was able to jump out of the car and grab my dog. When it first happened, I was just grateful everyone was safe."
But in the days that followed, she stumbled into a trap in federal rules that has kept the family from rebuilding and transformed her relief into a raging crusade.
In 2008, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared that Natomas would lose its 100-year flood protection rating because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had ruled the community's levees are vulnerable to seepage.
This triggered a host of new federal rules, starting with a mandate for Natomas homeowners to purchase flood insurance. It also brought a requirement that new construction in Natomas must be elevated above the expected flood depth.
In practice, this created a building moratorium that continues to this day, because flood depths in Natomas can exceed 20 feet. That means the first floor of any newly constructed home would have to be perched 20 feet above the ground a construction feat that is technically feasible but at exorbitant cost.
Less well known is the legal tangle that Taylor's family ran into.
FEMA rules include an exception for homeowners who need to do renovations. The rule says that as long as the construction does not exceed 50 percent of the home's value, the structure does not have to be elevated. One reason is to ensure that, in case a flood did occur, FEMA's insurance liability would not be increased substantially by remodeling work.
But in six cases since 2008, homeowners in Natomas have been unable to rebuild because fire damage to their homes exceeded that 50 percent cutoff.
The rule includes no exemption for fire damage, and FEMA has no legal authority to grant such exemptions.
The city of Sacramento could grant a variance from the height requirement, but under FEMA rules this would require the homeowner to pay inflated flood insurance rates exceeding $50,000 per year.
That is the fix Taylor's family is in. Their home is fully insured and the insurance company is prepared to cover the cost to rebuild, which could reach $190,000.
But amid the recession-driven crash in housing values, the assessed value of the home is only about $71,000 (not including land). That means repairs cannot exceed $35,500 not enough to make it habitable again.
"It's a bad situation," said Connie Perkins, a senior engineer in the city Utilities Department who has worked with the affected homeowners. "It's almost impossible to elevate your house above the 100-year flood level or very expensive."
That means Jennifer Taylor and her husband, if they want to preserve their credit rating, are stuck making mortgage payments on a home that is uninhabitable. They are even required by city codes to continue paying for garbage pickup and sewer service.
On top of that, federal rules require the family to continue paying for flood insurance on the damaged house.
"A whole new wave of grief hits you when you find out you are in this position," Taylor said as she stood in the blackened entryway of her home last week, the front yard piled with charred toys and clothes.
"It's very depressing. I can't believe something like this can happen to a homeowner in the United States. We paid every single mortgage payment on time for the last 14 years."
To help channel her outrage, Taylor launched a publicity campaign with two aims: to educate her fellow Natomas homeowners about the risks they face, and to change the federal rule.
Earlier this month, Taylor and her husband, a corrections officer, held a rally in front of their home to start a petition drive to change the rule. Last Wednesday, they and their two toddlers spent hours outside a local grocery store passing out fliers and gathering signatures.
They have about 250 signatures so far and they're aiming for 5,000. They also set up a Facebook page, "Burned Out in Natomas," to draw attention to the issue, and an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taylor finds it ironic and tragic that the rule allows any homeowner to spend up to 50 percent of a home's value on upgrades which increases flood liability to the federal government but she can't simply build her home back the way it was.
"There are over 40,000 houses this could happen to in Natomas, and it's not being disclosed," said Taylor, who worked as a research scientist at a vaccine company until her first child was born three years ago. "I've just been trying to scream as loud as I can."
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, heard the screams, and her staff met with Taylor. Because the conundrum potentially affects thousands of homeowners across the nation, Matsui is drafting legislation requiring FEMA to create a waiver process to exempt fire-damaged homes from the 50 percent limit.
"Homeowners who have played by the rules but have had the tragic misfortune of having their homes burn down should have the ability to rebuild," Matsui said. "This is a common-sense issue and must be rectified."
The ultimate fix is to finish upgrading the levees in Natomas.
The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency began this work in 2007 and has completed half of it so far, thanks in large part to property tax increases supported by local residents.
There are 24 miles of levees that still need repair, and this work is the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers. FEMA is prepared to lift the Natomas building restrictions once Congress approves funding for the Corps' construction plan for these levees. This step, however, is held up by a ban in Congress on so-called "earmark" funding.
The ban on earmarks is intended to prevent legislators from funding pet projects. It was not intended to block public works projects essential to flood safety, and which have already been approved by Corps headquarters, as is the case with Natomas levee repairs.
Matsui has included language in a new Water Resources Development Act bill that would exempt public safety projects such as the Natomas levee repairs from the earmark ban. There are a handful of other projects across the country that are similarly stalled.
"Until the levee situation is resolved, there are only two alternatives," said FEMA spokesman John Hamill. "One is to build to a height which would be prohibitively expensive, or wait until the levee issue is resolved."