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After Sandy, A New Threat: Soaring Flood Insurance

George Kasimos has almost finished repairing flood damage to his waterfront home, but his Superstorm Sandy nightmare is far from over.

Hurricane Sandy damage in Holgate, Mystic Islands, Ortley Beach and Lavalette,
Hurricane Sandy damage in Holgate, Mystic Islands, Ortley Beach and Lavalette ((Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen)

Like thousands of others in the hardest-hit coastal stretches of New Jersey and New York, his life is in limbo as he waits to see if tough new coastal rebuilding rules make it just too expensive for him to stay.

That’s because the federal government’s newly released advisory flood maps have put his Toms River home in the most vulnerable area — the “velocity zone.” If that sticks, he’d have to jack his house up 14 feet on stilts at a cost of $150,000 or face up to $30,000 a year in flood insurance premiums.

“Everyone assumes when you say a ‘home on the water,’ people have tons and tons of money, but that’s not the case,” said Kasimos, whose Toms River home was filled with a foot and a half of water in the storm. “Most of these homeowners are middle class.”

Even as those in the most vulnerable coastal areas have struggled to recover from the storm, federal authorities have been issuing them a sobering warning: Raise your homes above the flood plain or face soaring flood insurance costs.

For many, it’s an impossible choice. They can’t afford to do either. And many unanswered questions have left residents paralyzed with indecision.

Until the new flood maps are finalized in coming months by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, homeowners won’t know for sure how high they’ll have to raise their homes — if they have to raise them at all.

Officials are urging people to elevate their houses now because they are eligible for federal financial aid. About $350 million of New York City’s and $600 million of New Jersey’s Sandy relief funding has been allocated for the repair of single- and two-family homes, which could help defray the cost.

But it’s still unclear how that money will be distributed among individual homeowners, which means many of them could be on their own financially.

The process of house-raising is laborious and prohibitively expensive, especially for working-class people who are already saddled with storm repair costs. Even a small cottage can cost $60,000 to elevate, while a sprawling multilevel home could run upwards of $250,000.

“You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” said Karly Carozza, who is living with her parents while she and her husband decide when to repair their small ranch house in Brick Township.  “It seems like waiting makes the most sense, but when people have nowhere to go, how long do you want them to wait?”

Officials say now is the time to prepare for the future: Sandy will happen again. But many residents don’t believe them.

They think Sandy was a fluke, a storm to end all storms, the kind they won’t ever see again. And they’re preparing to do battle with the government for the right to continue living just as they have for generations — in low-lying abodes that were never built to endure storms, let alone the fierce hurricanes of the 21st century.

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In Broad Channel in the New York City borough of Queens, where the air smells like fish and ramshackle bungalows are built along the docks, few people are raising their homes. The firefighters, police officers and auto mechanics who live on this marshy island simply can’t afford it.

Yet residents here are staring down a possible A or V flood zone designation, putting them squarely on target to incur astronomical insurance premiums. FEMA defines an A zone as an area that has a 26 percent chance of flooding over 30 years. A V zone is the same, but adds the potential hazard of storm waves, increasing insurance premiums.

“The thing that scares me is that we’ve invested and worked on our houses our whole life,” said Frank Porcella, who took out a mortgage to pay for flooding damage to his bungalow. “And now they’ll make this place and the area around it a ghost town.”

Porcella, who is retired and lives on a fixed income, didn’t even consider raising his home. If his flood insurance goes up, he’ll simply walk away from his house and his mortgage. He’s gambling that the proposed rules will be changed and that another Sandy won’t happen again in his lifetime.

Several months before Sandy hit, Congress quietly passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, a bill that authorized skyrocketing premium increases for people in flood-prone communities.

It was a desperate attempt to keep the program financially solvent after it was nearly bankrupted by an onslaught of claims from Hurricane Katrina, which forced the federal government to borrow about $17 billion from the Treasury.

“When Biggert-Waters was passed in 2012, the big issue was this debt,” said Larry Larson, a senior policy adviser for the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “And the reality that the program could probably never pay it back.”

At the same time, FEMA was already preparing to update flood plain maps that hadn’t been revised in more than three decades. The new maps account for sea level rise and other changes to the coastline, putting almost every town in a more stringent flood zone.

If a home lies 4 feet below the flood plain, for example, a homeowner could pay $9,000 a year in flood insurance once the new rates take effect, Larson said. And the cost could be much higher, depending on the designation and where the home sits.

That’s why Kasimos founded “Stop FEMA Now!,” a grassroots group that’s fighting for changes to both Biggert-Waters and the new flood maps.

The group has nearly 4,000 Facebook members and counting. And it’s gaining traction from concerned shore-dwellers across the nation, especially those on the Gulf Coast.

Stacey Mattison of Belle Chasse, La., started a Louisiana chapter after learning her annual flood insurance premium will skyrocket from $300 to nearly $10,000.

“Who’s going to buy my house knowing they’re going to have to fork over an extra 10 grand a year?” she asked.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who voted for Biggert-Waters, introduced legislation last month that would delay the premium increases and allow homes that had subsidized rates to keep them, even if they are sold.

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Can you live on the wild side and ignore the maps?

If you don’t have a federally backed mortgage, sure. But if you don’t, your home won’t be worth much if you try to sell it down the road.

“If it was my house and that was my biggest investment in my life, I’d build it like a tank,” said Rod Scott, a consultant for the structural elevation industry in New Orleans, who has been educating thousands of homeowners across New Jersey on house-raising. “I wouldn’t squibble and squabble about this or that. I’d put the money in and I’d invest and I’d make it stronger so it can survive.”

But many homes with brick or cement foundations simply cannot be raised. To meet the new flood zone requirements, residents could instead fill their basements or first floors and move all electrical equipment to higher floors. Or they could knock them down and rebuild altogether.

To make matters more complex: To elevate in a V zone, people must build breakway walls that allow water to pass through or put their homes on stilts.

Unlike most of her neighbors, Lynn O’Hanlon is set on raising her Broad Channel home where she lives with her husband and two small children. The entire first floor of the two-story house was destroyed, and the place was so badly damaged that engineers say it would collapse if they tried to raise it.

So they’re planning to use insurance money to knock the whole thing down and rebuild, possibly as high as 14 feet, depending on the final instructions from FEMA. O’Hanlon hopes the new height will protect her children from future storms.

“We’ll be pretty high in the air,” she said. “We’ll be climbing a lot of stairs.”

But she’s worried about the future of their cozy community where people have lived for generations in close proximity to the sea.

What will it look like 20 years from now?

“I hope that the money comes through and the houses go up, and we’re all one community 14 feet in the air,” she said. “Hopefully.”

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