2006-03-31 / Community

Experts: Large Hurricane Coming Not 'If,' But 'When'

With A 27-Foot Storm Surge, Will Insurance Matter? --A Wave Examination
By Howard Schwach

The Long Beach Rescue Station on East Rockaway Inlet after a hurricane struck Rockaway and Long island in 1938. The Long Beach Rescue Station on East Rockaway Inlet after a hurricane struck Rockaway and Long island in 1938. Experts from the Weather Channel, some of the savviest meteorologists in the nation say that a category 3 or 4 hurricane will inevitably hit the northeastern part of the United States.

"It's not a question of if [a large hurricane will hit New York City], but when," their recent report states unequivocally.

That's frightening enough for residents of the Rockaway peninsula, surrounded on two sides by large bodies of water. The news, however, gets worse.

A later report by emergency management officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the ones who said that the New Orleans dikes would hold last summer) says that a Category 3 or higher storm would bring 27-foot storm surges from Jamaica Bay that would virtually cover the entire peninsula in water.

"All of the coastline of New York could be in trouble," says Allan McDuffie, a retired Corps of Engineers manager who is working part time on coming up with a new evacuation plan.

The experts who are drawing the plan say that Rockaway will not be the only area impacted by the storm - only the hardest hit.

Coney Island would be under 20 feet of water.

All of Manhattan below Canal Street would be inundated.

Jamaica Bay would get 30-foot storm surges, leaving JFK Airport under 19 feet of water and LaGuardia Airport under 9 feet of water.

The entire South Shore of Long Island would have to be evacuated.

Fire Island would be gone, probably never to be seen again.

Actually, Rockaway has experienced an island that disappeared after a major hurricane.

Hog Island stood off the coast of what is now Seagirt Beach, from Beach 6 Street west to approximately Beach 35 Street. The island was large enough to hold hotels and bathhouses and two bridges ran from the Rockaway shoreline to the island.

Think of where Atlantic Beach is today and you will get an idea of the relationship between Rockaway and Hog Island.

In 1893, the year the Wave began publishing, the outer beach, including Hog Island, was completely destroyed by two unnamed hurricanes that hit in the month of September.

By 1896, some of the barrier beach came back and plans were made to rebuild some of the summer facilities and at least one of the bridges.

A number of large storms, however, put an end to that plan and the island never came back.

The Long Beach Bar, which developed after the 1896 storms, eventually became Atlantic Beach.

The last massive and unnamed hurricane struck Rockaway and Long Island in 1938, causing lots of damage as it moved into New England. We have not had a Category 4 hurricane hit directly since that time.

Which brings us back to the present and the controversy over the homeowners and flood insurance that would at least allow Rockaway and Broad Channel residents to rebuild in the aftermath of the "big one."

There are many locals who believe that flood insurance and homeowners insurance are the same.

John Lepore, the owner of Allstate Insurance in Rockaway, says that is not true, that no company writes flood insurance as part of a homeowner's policy. The flood insurance comes from the government.

"We can't underwrite flood insurance because there is just too much risk involved," he told The Wave in a wide-ranging interview this week, adding that floods are "not something that happens when your sink overflows, but an overflow from a body of water that is unforeseen."

That kind of flood, Lepore says, is the government's bailiwick. Both the federal government, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the state provide that coverage. FEMA has a plan called "The National Flood Insurance Program" that makes money available for insurance in communities that are addressing the flooding problem.

More available, perhaps, is flood insurance under the New York Property Insurance Underwriting Association (NYPIUA), which now provides insurance to many locals. The problem with that plan, however, is that the money to run it expires each year and has to be renewed by both the Assembly and the Senate. A bill to make the money permanent passed the Assembly on February 24. A similar bill died in the Senate in January.

Lepore says that many people never ask for flood insurance because of its expense unless they need it to satisfy a mortgage mandate.

"More people are asking for it now because of Hurricane Katrina," he said, "but the traditional homeowner's policy never includes flood insurance."

Allstate's recent announcement that it would no longer write new homeowner's policies in Rockaway and other waterfront areas, bring some controversy and censure against the company.

Lepore said, however, that a vast majority of people that presently have homeowner's policies with the company would keep that insurance.

"People who have been with us a long time and have a good claims record and those who have multiple insurance coverage with us will have their homeowner's policies renewed," he said. "Only a small percentage will lose their insurance."

He said that government can do better on flood insurance than the private market and that a problem exists in state coverage "because many legislators see it as a downstate problem."

"The government should be the insurer of last resort," he added.

Will the "big one" hit Rockaway this summer?

That remains to be seen. There are many experts working on an evacuation plan for Rockaway and other oceanfront communities.

The best advice they say is to get out as early as possible. Once the hurricane hits, they say, it's all bets off.

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