Sandy’s scarlet letter leaves homeowners in the lurch

Zone A and other increased flood designations since the storm mean inflated insurance payments for many

A view via Google Maps of Gerritsen Beach, which was reclassified after Sandy as Zone A, high-risk flood area.

A year ago, no section of the working-class community of Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., had a Zone A flood designation — the high-risk category that requires expensive flood insurance and changes in zoning.

That was before Superstorm Sandy.

Now every corner of the waterfront town between Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park is labeled with what might as well be a scarlet letter for many communities.

The letter A means exorbitant prices for coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program that could each $1,000 a month. Without insurance, mortgage lenders will stop lending, and people will lose their homes.

An A also means that living quarters have to be 13 feet above the flood plain. Those lucky enough to have basements can hope to move heating equipment up one floor, but those without are faced with major reconstruction.

For young families and senior citizens whose homes were devastated, the prospect of full recovery is grim.

“The biggest challenge is money,’’ said Doreen Garson, a small-business owner and chief of the Gerritsen Beach Volunteer Fire Department. “People buy insurance, and they think they’re going to get the money. Some of them don’t have basements. FEMA gave them $3,000 and change, but to replace the whole first floor and appliances costs a lot more than $3,000.”

Garson, 61, a native of Gerritsen Beach, said her family, including children and grandchildren who live in town, were lucky because they had basements. But she feels for the hundreds who are struggling to make ends meet in the face of new zoning requirements and escalating insurance costs.

“Most of them are young families who live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “They’re just making it. They’re first-time home buyers. A lot of them are late on mortgages.”

One year after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc up the Eastern Seaboard and ravaged coastal areas of New York and New Jersey, the challenge of rebuilding to withstand future storms and comply with stricter regulations continues.

Communities have had to adjust their zoning requirements to a new reality: Violent storms are expected to be more frequent because of climate change.

Tens of billions of dollars in damage and the displacement of thousands of residents in one of the most populated regions of the U.S. have triggered swift action — much swifter than the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast — but the struggle continues.

“Sandy was a wake-up call for everybody,” said Robert Pirani, vice president for energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit research, planning and advocacy group in the New York metropolitan area. “For the homeowners and business owners who are trying to rebuild their properties, the methods that are being suggested in order to be compliant with the federal flood-insurance standards are in fact in conflict with local zoning codes.”

And they’re costly.

A financial disaster

“They don’t have the money to do that,” Garson said. “If their homes were more than 51 percent damaged, (New York City’s) Build It Back program could be helping them. But you have to be able to at least pay the mortgage on time, and people who were behind the eight ball before are more behind the eight ball now.”

Take height restrictions. If property owners are in a flood zone — and many more are since the Federal Emergency Management Agency redrew the flood map — they have to comply with new standards that require elevating structures in order to qualify for national flood insurance. But if they do, they run afoul of local height limits.

“You’re stuck between a federal rock and a local hard place,” said Jim Schwab, manager of the American Planning Association’s Hazards Planning Research Center.

To resolve this Catch-22, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved to lift the restrictions to allow quicker reconstruction. In January, less than three months after the disaster, he signed an emergency executive order to suspend height and other restrictions to allow home and property owners rebuilding after Sandy to meet new flood standards without violating zoning codes.

This zoning change is crucial in crowded cities. In less-populated flood areas, like parts of the Midwest, people can build elsewhere. After the Great Flood of 1993, the entire town of Pattonsburg, Mo., moved to higher ground.

“In a dense, urban environment, you don’t have the option to relocate,” Schwab said. “Where do you relocate in New York City?”

To safeguard against future floods, New York also adopted a new rule to increase the required minimum flood-proofing elevation so that substantially damaged buildings and new construction projects are built with greater flood risk in mind, and that could help New Yorkers limit the cost of federal flood insurance.

“New York realized they couldn’t abandon the waterfront,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning and policy at New York University. “They weren’t going to retreat. This is a waterfront city, so how are we going to live safely? The mayor decided we weren’t going to put people in trailers and in tents, and there was huge pressure to put people back in their homes” — the reason some zoning restrictions were lifted.

Remapping the flood zones roughly doubled the number of people in the New York metropolitan area living in flood areas, Pirani said.

“It was roughly a 20 percent increase in land area and 20 percent of the population,” he said.

Nationally, more than 20,000 communities in the United States are in 100-year-flood zones — areas that FEMA determined have a 1 percent annual chance of flooding to a certain level.

New York University “had to rebuild its emergency room, which was flooded,” Moss said. “It used to be in the basement. Now it’s on the first floor.”

There has been a huge effort to not just rebuild but also to do it in a way to make buildings as resilient against natural disasters as possible and still keep the urban landscape attractive.

When a building is elevated near the waterfront, rather than putting up a wall on the lower level, shrubbery can be planted, Schwab said.

In New Jersey, where Sandy devastated seaside communities, Gov. Chris Christie’s building requirements are stricter to comply with FEMA flood guidelines. In Hoboken, where two-thirds of the city lies in a flood zone, public hearings have been held on the toughened building standards in flood areas.

In Rockaway, N.J., every new home in flood areas has to have more trees, Moss said.

New challenges to come

Climate change is upping the ante for planners.

“Historically, the sea level has risen a foot in the last 100 years,” Pirani said. “Projections are anywhere from 2 to 5 feet over the next 50 years.”

Adapting to this new normal has given birth to a new approach to planning: planning for resilience, with floodgates, strategic retreat and restoring natural systems, said Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

“There are new challenges in terms of zoning and land-use restrictions, regulations,” he said. “Government will continue to try to do the sensible thing in terms of coastal building and rebuilding. The political realities are a more sensitive matter.”

Some New York politicians suggested that rebuilding should simply not happen in some places.

“Figuring how much of this can be achieved and all the community engagement that entails is, I think, what everybody is trying to figure out,” Flint said.

He predicts challenges in the legal realm of property rights as governments try to face up to the realities of beach erosion and flooding.

One thing Sandy did is force a much faster upgrade of Manhattan’s communications system. All new buildings in lower Manhattan will now be fit with fiber-optic systems.

“Ironically, this has led to massive advances in communications … It’s more resilient and also has much great bandwidth,” Moss said.

Had Sandy not caused such devastation, he added, “it would’ve taken years.”

It’s small comfort to residents of Gerritsen Beach who are caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Homes will have to be elevated in order to get flood coverage. Without insurance, banks will not finance mortgages. But if they pay the insurance, homeowners may not be able to afford their mortgages.

“And if you don’t have a basement, insurance is going to be sky high,” Garson said — up to $1,000 a month, compared with $500 a year for those with basements. “It really is all tied together.”

Even those who benefited from the city’s Rapid Repairs program, which replaced appliances and hot-water heaters in homes that were affected, new zoning will mean moving all the equipment higher.

“Now that there are new requirements to raise everything up, everything has to be redone,” Garson said. “It’s all about money and how much it’s going to cost you for insurance.”

Few residents want to talk about their ordeal, she said.

They're expected to gather at the waterfront Tuesday for a candlelight vigil.

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