2013-03-29 / Front Page

Read This!

Special Editorial

This is about YOU. About you, your family, your friends. It’s about you whether you rent or own. Whether you have a mortgage or not. It’s about the future of Rockaway. Period. This is not hype or a headline grabbing stunt. We want YOU to be aware of what is unfolding.

If you care about Rockaway this is about you. It’s not a fun subject but don’t let your eyes glaze over. It’s about FEMA and flood insurance.

Maybe you’ve been too busy putting your house and life back together to think about flood insurance. And maybe you don’t think it’s an issue that concerns you. Or maybe you’re an optimist that compels you to think things will work out. Well, please read the following and then decide if it’s time to act.

The reason this involves EVERYONE in Rockaway is because drastic flood insurance costs could destabilize the entire peninsula. House prices could plummet, stores could close, people might be forced to walk away from their houses. Even people in high-rises might be affected.

Unless action is taken, another disaster is heading for Rockaway.

In July 2012 – before Sandy –the Biggert-Waters Act was signed into law. This act essentially bailed out the National Flood Insurance Program (devastated by payouts as a result of Hurricane Katrina) and removed subsidies for most flood insurance coverage. Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, and Congressman Meeks and every congressperson —Republican and Democrat— in the area voted for it. We’ll get to them later.

For now, let’s just consider what is before us. FEMA recently issued new flood maps and advisory elevations (how high your first floor should be above sea level).

First off, do not be fooled by the term “advisory.” A FEMA official said these maps were done with the cooperation of several agencies (including the Army Corps of Engineers) and with experts from numerous fields. We expect most of the maps to move from advisory to accepted.

Most of Rockaway will be moved into an A Flood Zone. All of Broad Channel will be put in the V Zone. A and V are the costliest insurance zones.

Currently, a fair portion of Rockaway is now in a low-risk zone (the X zone). That is a result of maps from 1983. In recent years, FEMA has been working on new maps and adjusting zones according to new probabilities of flooding. As a result, Rockaway and Broad Channel will be moved into A and V zones.

By being put into the A and V zones more homeowners will have to get flood insurance. Banks will insist on it. Stores and businesses will face the same.

In many cases, if you’ve already been paying flood insurance, you’ve been getting a break. The rates have been government subsidized but thanks to the new law, the subsidies are going away. If you’re in an A zone now, you might already be paying as much as $3000 per year in flood insurance. Under the new law, that rate can climb to $9500 or more in five years. Yes, or more.

Again, all of Rockaway is being moved into the A zone. All homeowners should be aware of the implications of this.

Generally, the new FEMA advisory maps say the first floor of living area of Rockaway houses should be 10-12 feet above the mean high tide (which we’ll call sea level). Here’s an example: The curb in front of your house is probably between 5-8 feet above sea level. If it’s just five feet above sea level, and FEMA says your living area should be at the 12 foot elevation level, you need the first floor to be SEVEN feet higher than the curb.

Another example: If your curb is 8 feet above sea level you need your first floor to be at least four feet higher than the curb. Maybe you walk a few steps up to get to your first floor and when you step inside your house you’ll be right at the 10-12 foot elevation mark.

But wait, do you have a basement? Maybe a bedroom or an office down there? No good. That’s where you measure from – if you use your basement, your first living area might be 10 feet BELOW the advisory level.

Say, you don’t have a bedroom – just a furnace and hot water heater? Same thing. For flood insurance purposes you are far BELOW the advisory level.

If you are below the advisory level you will pay dearly. FEMA uses an example of a house that is 4 feet below the advisory level. The annual flood insurance cost for such a house will be $9500 per YEAR. If you want to keep your basement and be 10 feet below the FEMA (ABFE) level the cost will far exceed $10,000 a year, if you’re insured at all. Again, if your living area is more than 4 feet below the elevation level the application has to be submitted for a rate review (certain to be more than $9500 a year).

You can find out what your Advisory level is now. Go to www.region2coastal.com/sandy/table, put in your address. (The likely level is between 10-12 feet.) Unfortunately, you’ll need a professional surveyor to tell you exactly how high above sea level your street and first floor are.

If you haven’t needed or been required to purchase flood insurance, perhaps you were in an X or B zone. Well, you might want to purchase some insurance now. You can lock in these rates (as opposed to paying for A Zone) for as long as you own the house and as long as you don’t let coverage lapse. This chance at buying the lower rate policy will expire as soon as the advisory levels are accepted (which will happen within a year or two) when all of Rockaway becomes an A zone.

An X zone policy might cost you just $458 a year right now. This rate will climb over the next few years but not get anywhere near the A Zone rates.

But that’s where the good news ends. The X Zone rate is not protected when you sell the house. Any new buyer will face A Zone rates. Assuming you have a basement or have a house that is below the 10- 12 foot elevation level, a new buyer will have to pay thousands in flood insurance. There will be no phasing-in period for new buyers. They’ll face the steep insurance rates right away. Depending upon elevation levels, new buyers could face premiums of $9500 or more.

And most new buyers will need a mortgage. Banks will insist on flood insurance. When banks figure out if an owner can afford a house, this $9500 a year expense will be calculated. We bet that will make the difference whether someone can afford your house or not. If buyers can’t afford your house, the price will have to come down.

The FEMA option to paying such crushing rates is to elevate your house (although FEMA says you do not have to raise your house NOW).

There will be funds available (both through FEMA and through Community Development Block Grants) for some homeowners who want to have their houses elevated. Whether the funds will cover the total cost we don’t know. We’ve heard estimates ranging anywhere between $50 and $100 thousand – and we can imagine some houses costing more than that. (In future reports, we’ll tell you about whether you’ll even qualify for these grants.)

But first, keep in mind. Before you start wondering if your house can be elevated at all, realize you are surrendering the idea of a basement. Your furnace and hot water heat must be elevated, too. So, they will likely be on your first floor. You might have to surrender a basement and another room on the first floor to accommodate the furnace. Or add a room. Somewhere. Not so easy.

We won’t even bother with the challenges of elevating attached or semi-attached houses, houses with sunken driveways leading to a garage; or old houses with plaster walls. House elevation will be a case by case basis. In many instances, it will be impossible and the only option will be the crushing flood insurance.

We won’t even comment on how elevating houses might make neighborhoods look, well, ugly. If all houses were raised that might make for a nice looking block. But a house here and a house there towering above others? Not so nice.

Oh, and the city might actually demand homeowners go one or two feet ABOVE FEMA’s advisory level in a process called “freeboarding.” (If you were lucky on the elevation levels so far, the extra requirement by the city might do you in.) Again, if FEMA wants your first floor 12 feet above sea level the city might demand homeowners be at 13 or 14 feet– which could make the difference in whether you have to elevate or pay exorbitant rates.

And here’s something we don’t think FEMA or many others have considered. Are houses that are elevated more vulnerable to WIND damage? Will houses be safe from floods but then more likely to be toppled by winds? We’d like an answer to this. Why should we elevate houses that are not hurricane proof?

If you don’t have to elevate or don’t need flood insurance (you don’t have a mortgage), remember that when you sell, the buyer might very well need a mortgage (or want an elevated house). They’ll make you pay on the purchase price – if they want to buy at all.

And if you don’t need flood insurance – and don’t ever intend to sell – you don’t have to do a thing. BUT if you want a community that is stable, you want a variety of stores that can afford to operate here, and you want to live in a desirable neighborhood THEN you’ll know you can’t put your head in the sand on this issue.

And, as we said, this isn’t just about homeowners. Live in a highrise? If the building owners need flood insurance they’ll probably have to give up the first floor or two. Furnaces (mechanicals) will have to be set no lower than the first floor living area (probably 5- 8 feet higher than the height of the lobby now). People live on the first floor now – where will they go? And with fewer apartments, you can bet higher rents and assessments will be just one consequence. There’ll be others.

Own a store or a business? Believe us when we tell you that FEMA is advising that STORES be elevated too. If stores are in a building that needs flood insurance the choice is elevate or pay flood premiums of $10,000 or more per year. How many Rockaway stores will close with that extra burden? We fear plenty. (We know of a large store that can’t reopen because it’s waiting to hear about whether they need to elevate the building – which will be impossible).

Folks, this is real. The only good news we see is that we’re not alone. Broad Channel is already ahead of Rockaway on this. The Broad Channel Civic Association has passed a resolution in opposition to the Biggert-Waters Act. Other coastal communities are facing the same drastic reality. There is a group in New Jersey called Stop FEMA Now. It’s a fast growing movement. Rockaway has to get onboard and start sounding the alarms.

As for our representatives – here’s the shocking part. Although they represent numerous coastal communities, they all voted for the Biggert-Waters Act last June. As far as we can tell, Louisiana senator, Mary Landrieu was the only official warning about the potential disaster of unsubsidized flood premiums. Landrieu was recently joined by New Jersey senators Lautenberg and Menendez in asking FEMA to postpone rate increases. Where are our New York senators, Schumer and Gillibrand, on this? Congressman Meeks has proposed extending the amount of years from 5 to 8 before full rates apply. Not good enough, but at least it’s an indication that he knows the current plan is a disaster in the making.

Again, this act removes all subsidies from the National Flood Insurance Program. This was signed pre-Sandy. We would be facing the same options: absurd flood insurance costs now or home elevation. Had Sandy not occurred, homeowners would be expected to foot the bill for home elevation. Sandy aid might now cover some or all of it, if the house can be elevated. So, strangely enough, our elected officials got lucky with Sandy. At some point, they’ll be able to offer money to some homeowners who can reasonably elevate their homes. Had Sandy not happened, these same reps would have been among those who voted for you to elevate your house on your own. We don’t think they should be praised for their luck.

Here’s the one loophole we see. As part of the Biggert-Waters Act FEMA is REQUIRED to do a study about affordability. The study calls for methods of establishing an affordability framework for flood insurance, including targeted assistance.

Our reps MUST offer input, challenge – and be ALL OVER THIS STUDY.

But do they even know a study is required? Since they signed the bill in the first place, we don’t know if they know anything.

The study is supposed to be released on April 6th.

There’s an irony here. The Army Corps of Engineers says they’re going to make Rockaway safer than ever with sand replenishment and jetties. Well, Rockaway will be a well-protected ghost town if flood insurance rates are allowed to skyrocket.

You don’t have to know all the particulars but you should call our representatives and tell them you are concerned about flood insurance and the future of Rockaway and you want them to get to work on legislation that will help us.

They need to hear from YOU.

Call Senator Schumer: 202-224-6542 Call Senator Gillibrand: 202- 224-4451 Call Congressman Meeks 202-225-3461.

Not sure what to say?  Just Ask what they're doing about flood insurance.  And maybe tell them you know they voted for the Biggert-Waters act which is now threatening our entire community.  Call them. They represent YOU.

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