2013-09-13 / Front Page

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Rally Set For Saturday, 9/28
By Kevin Boyle

Rockaway, Broad Channel, and Howard Beach residents will be joining forces at a rally to protest the looming threat of runaway flood insurance premiums. Set for Saturday, September 28th at noon, the rally will take place in Broad Channel, the geographic center of the many communities facing costly premiums.

Stop FEMA Now is the organization behind the rally. Started by George Kasimos in Tom’s River, New Jersey, the grassroots effort has inspired similar rallies to be held the same day in Staten Island, New Jersey and Louisiana. Dan Mundy Jr., president of the Broad Channel Civic Association, is calling for residents across the peninsula and beyond to come and demonstrate a united front.

The reason the issue has sparked such concern is because FEMA, which runs the National Flood Insurance Program, released rate information charts that indicate homeowners will be expected to pay as much as $30,000 per year for flood insurance.

The Wave began covering this issue in March. Since then, more people, more communities, and more elected officials have become aware of something called the Biggert Waters Act. This act, with bipartisan support, was signed into law in July 2012. It was designed to better fund the National Flood Insurance Program which, according to FEMA, was nearly bankrupt as a result of payouts to Hurricane Katrina victims. The Wave editorial page and many others have questioned the administration of the program suggesting that it was years of mismanagement – not just Katrina payouts – that led to its near insolvency.

In any case, lawmakers set out to put in place rules that would put the Flood Program on better financial footing. Essentially, they attempted to remove subsidies as quickly as possible. They disallowed grandfathering rules; they instituted plans to allow for a quick climb to ‘actuarial” rates (full unsubsidized rates); and immediately removed subsidies for second homeowners.

Apparently, such remedies seemed sensible to lawmakers including Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Congressman Gregory Meeks who voted to approve Biggert-Waters. In the words of Long Island Congressman Peter King, “We thought it was good legislation at the time.”

One reason it seemed like “good legislation” is because FEMA did not present its rate chart that would kick in once the law was passed. Lawmakers likely had no idea what an “advisory base flood elevation” was, nor were they told that a house 4 feet below such an elevation would have a yearly premium cost of $9500.

Lawmakers voted for something that they didn’t understand or fully appreciate. In fact, Maxine Waters, one of the co-authors of the bill has said the unforeseen, unintended consequences of Biggert- Waters must be reviewed. In a letter to FEMA and signed with other members of Congress, she wrote, “we have recently become aware of an unintended consequence of this otherwise well-meaning legislation… We strongly believe that we should not burden homeowners with punitive or unaffordable rates that will slow our housing market recovery and force families out of their homes.”

FEMA has not budged.

Rockaway (including Breezy Point and Broad Channel) is primed to be among the first communities in the crosshairs of devastating premiums.

Most houses in Rockaway are on streets that are 5 to 8 feet above sea level. The first floor is usually 4-5 feet above the street putting the first floor of the house at 10-12 feet above sea level.

Recent flood maps put Rockaway in an “A Zone” indicating that many homes should be at an “advisory base” above sea level. In Rockaway that advisory level is often 10 or 12 feet. (In plainer English: we advise your first floor to be 12 feet above sea level. Anything less than that and you will pay dearly).

Many houses have basements with furnaces and hot water heaters. The basement, with any kind of utility or if it’s used as a living space (bedroom or TV room, for example) is then considered the first level. It is likely then that “base level” is well below the 10 or 12 foot advisory level. Premiums skyrocket once the first floor level falls below the advisory rate.

Houses built on slabs aren’t much better off. Generally, they have just a couple of steps and are not much higher than the street level. Street level in Rockaway (5 to 8 feet) usually means such houses are below the advisory level.

Commercial property owners with mortgages will be expected to pay the new high premiums as well. Apartments and co-ops will have to move utilities to above the advisory level or face steep premiums.

Steep premiums will very likely cause home values to decline. Even if a homeowner does not need flood insurance, the value of his or her property will go down the same as others. Home values are determined by comparable sales — if sale prices fall, all homeowners are affected.

Organizers of the rally believe public awareness is critical. They believe if crowds gather and media outlets take notice, lawmakers across the country will have to act. Local reps (Schumer, Gillibrand, and Meeks) have all supported proposed amendments to stall rate increases but so far their efforts have not yielded any relief.

Organizers say it is necessary to make the entire country aware of the issue. All fifty states have “A Zone” flood areas with constituents facing the same premium bombshell but most of those people have been given no indication that such costs are coming. New York and New Jersey and a handful of other places got, in effect, an advance peek because FEMA released new flood maps for parts of the east coast. The new maps pointed to the proposed increases in insurance.

Other states have not yet been remapped so the issue has remained little known. But these same states face a surprise. When “A Zone” rates hit New York and New Jersey they will hit South Dakota and Tennessee; they will fall on “A Zone” homeowners in Texas and California.

Organizers say The Stop FEMA Now rally in Broad Channel is planned to draw attention to an issue that, if left alone, will be worse than any storm. The implementation of some Biggert-Waters rules is set for October 1st.

The rally will be held September 28th, at noon, at the American Legion Hall at 209 Cross Bay Boulevard. Dan Mundy said, “Take your bike, take your car, take the A Train. Showing up is what you need to do.”

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