2013-04-05 / Front Page

Special Editorial Week 2

Super Storm FEMA

Last week, for the first time in The Wave’s 120 year history, we ran the Editorial on the front page. We wanted all our readers to be aware of the implications of the Biggert-Waters Act. Today’s editorial continues the theme.

You’re going to prepare better for the next big storm, aren’t you? A big part of being prepared is being informed. Well, another storm is coming but it’s not from Mother Nature. It’s not a flood; it’s flood insurance.

Again, we plead your indulgence and ask you to read all the way through because Rockaway is really up against it. We recognize that many of us are punch drunk and overwhelmed. We’re just five months out since the Storm That Changed Everything. But the only way we can battle back is to be informed. Going forward, we’ll need your energy and ideas. This is not the time to think, oh, it’ll work out.

The Biggert-Waters Act, which triggered the flood insurance premiums that will destabilize many communities, was signed into law while no one was watching. We believe the City is moving ahead with some plans hoping no one watches.

You’ll soon start hearing about Community Development Block Grants (called CDBG). That’s Sandy grant money that is supposed to be coming your way.

Of course, you should have heard about the CDBG already. But details of the grant program were released in near secrecy by The NYC Housing Recovery Office in a 199 page “Action Plan.” This plan includes a public comment period which would allow YOU to weigh in with ideas, suggestions and questions.

Again, there was supposed to be a PUBLIC comment period. Have you heard anything about it?

This CDBG action plan has to be approved by HUD (Housing and Urban Development) before the Sandy funds are released to the City. Maybe the City didn’t want public comments to slow down the approval. More likely, they just don’t want to hear from the public.

The City’s Housing Recovery people might object to the word secrecy – they might say they’ve been out and about telling people about the CDBG but The Wave is the main newspaper in the MOST impacted area and they didn’t call us, didn’t send a press release, didn’t take out an ad. Nothing.

How the hell can they say they are looking for community input when they avoid The Wave? Are we the be-all, end-all? Of course not. But to sidestep the community’s main newspaper strikes us as negligence. (Note to The City – not everyone goes online for information). Community Board 14 was not alerted either in any official capacity. The main newspaper and the Community Board were kept in the dark. You need more evidence that these people don’t care what the public has to say?

At this point you might say, ah, they never care about us. What’s new? You might be tempted to chalk this up as business as usual and stop reading. But we urge you to keep going. We need you.

Before we get to particulars of the 199 page action plan (CDBG), we must acknowledge that the City actually extended the Public Comment period seven days. Of course, the generous extension just happened to run through Passover and Easter when people might be a tad distracted or on vacation. The truth is, the public was expected to find out about the “Action Plan” on an obscure website. And the deadline for public comment? That was last night. Sorry, you wanted to add something? Too late.

We were able to read through it and sent in a few comments but it was 199 pages and by the time we got wind of it there was little chance to review it thoroughly. It’s clear the City wants the money in a hurry. Bloomberg wants to spend it in a hurry. The public be damned.

Again.

In last week’s Wave, we detailed some of what FEMA and the City are expecting as far as how high your first floor should be. Have you estimated how high above sea level your house or apartment is? Have you thought about how a walkin store is supposed to elevate? Have you wondered how that store will stay open? Or do you live in an apartment building and now wonder how high above the lobby the new floor will have to be? These questions are moving beyond the hypothetical.

We won’t get into the particulars as we did last week but in general, if you’re required to get flood insurance in the A Flood Zone, and you have a house with a basement, you will be expected to pay more than $10,000 a year in flood insurance premiums. If you’re on a slab, you’re probably 6 feet below what FEMA wants. So that means you’ll be hit with a bill bigger than $10,000, too.

Your first reaction might be – somebody must be crazy – The Wave or FEMA.

Well, we’re only telling you what Congress did when it passed the Biggert- Waters Act in 2012 (before Sandy!). The National Flood Insurance Program was bankrupt and Congress set YOU up as the piggy bank.

We’re not the crazy ones here. At this point, FEMA is “advising.” But here’s the catch. Communities must accept FEMA maps if ANY flood insurance is to be offered in that community. That’s right. If the city says NO to FEMA, FEMA can say, fine, nobody who lives in your community can get flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. And, of course, the banks won’t go for that. They won’t lend in an area that doesn’t offer flood insurance.

The official maps are supposed to be issued on June 1st. As we said, we don’t expect much change from the advisory levels already issued.

By the way, some places like Broad Channel and parts of Howard Beach are in the costliest zone—the V Zone. Those communities are in an uproar (as are people in other V zones like Tom’s River, New Jersey—which has spawned a group called Stop FEMA Now). People in these communities are trying to fight the V Zone designation because of building requirements and insurance costs.

Frankly, we don’t think it matters all that much. They’re asking to be moved from the electric chair to the gas chamber. If these communities are somehow placated and moved from V to Zone A they will still be in a death struggle. (If your annual insurance premium comes down from $30,000 to $15,000, does it matter? $15,000 will be a town killer, too).

Let’s get back to the GRANT MONEY in the CDBG, some of which is supposed to be given to homeowners who have houses that possibly can be elevated. Well, you might not be getting that grant at all. Take a deep breath.

A city official told The Wave: “Bad behavior is being rewarded.”

If you applied to FEMA and then—- doing as FEMA suggested — applied for an SBA loan you won’t be getting grant money now. EVEN IF YOU TURNED DOWN THE SBA LOAN.

As many of you know, applying for the SBA loan was a waste of time. In fact, many people with good credit and little debt were penalized. They were offered loans with interest rates no better than what your local bank was offering. If you had bad credit and/or a pile of debt, you were more likely to get a loan with the best rate.

Whether you took the SBA loan or not, here’s how it gets in the way now. If Fema gave you $31,900 and SBA offered you $75,000 you were “given” $106,900. If your case manager (someone the city will assign to you to determine the costs of elevating your house) determines that it will cost $100,000 to raise your house – well, you’ll be out of luck.

You already got your $106,900. It won’t matter that you may have spent the money to get back to where you were pre-Sandy. Your recourse is to go back to SBA and ask for more loan money.

If you turned down the SBA loan you are still on the hook for that amount of money (as far as determining grant money). So, whatever loan offer SBA made subtract that from the amount of grant money you hoped to get to raise your house. For example: You need a $100,000 grant to elevate your house but you turned down a $70,000 SBA loan. Well, maybe, maybe they’ll offer you a $30,000 grant – but that would be after you went back to the SBA.

If you did nothing. If you did not apply for an SBA loan (even though everyone was encouraged to do so) you might be in line for a grant.

Of course, the grant might pay to elevate your house but not necessarily cover the costs of building a new addition to the house for utilities (which can’t be below that elevation level of 12-14 feet above sea level).

Both an architect and a plumber told us that many houses are heated with steam. Steam rises and current systems need to be below the first floor. You either have to raise the house that much higher or change the heating system. Maybe you’ll get a grant to elevate but not for the heating system change. That’ll be on you.

There is an endless list of things that will get in the way of these magic grants. No wonder the city didn’t want public comments !

Here’s the thing. You already know a lot of this will just be impossible. Its’ very troubling that city officials and our Senator Schumer are fairly cavalier about all this – as if throwing money will take care of it all. Schumer was heard at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade saying, don’t worry we’re gonna raise your houses and you won’t have to pay for it.

Bull.

We believe the CDBG (the grant money) will be a red herring (a useful tool to distract us). We have good reason to be suspicious of it. We’ll be spending time chasing grant money and talking about elevating houses when the 10,000 pound gorilla in the room is forgotten about.

Flood insurance is the thing to keep your eye on.

We believe you can’t scream about something you don’t like unless you offer an alternative. There are alternatives. We need Meeks, Schumer and Gillibrand to do some thinking. They can’t just say, hey people in Congress from Nebraska and Georgia don’t like us. We’re stuck with those flood rates.

That’s more bull.

In coming editorials we will offer some ideas and solutions. (And we want YOU to offer some). Here are a couple examples: if you want life insurance the company considers your blood work and offers you a rate. It’s an individual policy. Why not the same with flood insurance? If your house is better positioned than someone two blocks away why should you pay the same rate? And why not a la carte insurance? If you own a car, you need liability insurance but you don’t need collision coverage. Why can’t we be selective with flood insurance? We should be able to insure the foundation but maybe not the furnace.

These ideas may not be perfect or work ideally but we’re not going to sit here and watch our reps shrug like there’s nothing they can do. (For one thing the National Flood Insurance Program will have to be reauthorized in 2017. The time to start leveraging that is now).

And here’s one more thing to be on the lookout for. The fear card. You’ll hear some officials say they just don’t want people to die “the next time.” You’ll hear a lot of versions of “better safe than sorry.” They’ll use that as the reason to do nothing about flood insurance. Well, for starters, they can make us safer by getting sand, dunes, jetties, and sea walls.

You are probably not the type to call your representative. It might not be your thing or you are just uncomfortable. But if you believe what we’re telling you, we ask that you make an exception. Just this once. Make the call. And tell friends in Brooklyn and Long Island that they should do the same.

Do you remember what it was like when the stores weren’t open for weeks after the storm? Do you remember when your block or building was half empty of neighbors? That’s the kind of Rockaway that could return – this time without a natural disaster as the reason. The cost of flood insurance is more likely to wreck Rockaway than any storm.

As we’ve said before, maybe you don’t need flood insurance, but do you want Rockaway to be like it was in early December?

We know your calls got through to Congressman Meeks and to his credit he at least knows this is an issue that needs answers.

As for Schumer and Senator Gillibrand? Who knows. Make the call. Ask them a simple question: what are they doing about flood insurance?

Senator Schumer: 212-486-4430 Senator Gillibrand: 202-224-4451

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