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After Sandy, a new threat: Soaring flood insurance

Sunday - 6/9/2013, 7:02pm  ET

In this Thursday, April 11, 2013, photo, Dan Mundy stands on a ladder, on the porch of an already raised home, to show the new proposed base flood elevation in the Broad Channel section of Queens, New York. As people finish up repairs to their waterlogged houses, officials are warning them that they must prepare for the future and raise their homes higher above the flood plain or they could face up to $30,000 a year in flood insurance costs. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

KATIE ZEZIMA

TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) -- George Kasimos has almost finished repairing flood damage to his waterfront home, but his Superstorm Sandy nightmare is far from over.

Like thousands of others in the hardest-hit coastal stretches of New Jersey and New York, his life is in limbo as he waits to see if tough new coastal rebuilding rules make it just too expensive for him to stay.

That's because the federal government's newly released advisory flood maps have put his Toms River home in the most vulnerable area -- the "velocity zone." If that sticks, he'd have to jack his house up 14 feet on stilts at a cost of $150,000 or face up to $30,000 a year in flood insurance premiums.

"Everyone assumes when you say a 'home on the water,' people have tons and tons of money, but that's not the case," said Kasimos, whose Toms River home was filled with a foot and a half of water in the storm. "Most of these homeowners are middle class."

Even as those in the most vulnerable coastal areas have struggled to recover from the storm, federal authorities have been issuing them a sobering warning: Raise your homes above the flood plain or face soaring flood insurance costs.

For many, it's an impossible choice. They can't afford to do either. And many unanswered questions have left residents paralyzed with indecision.

Until the new flood maps are finalized in coming months by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, homeowners won't know for sure how high they'll have to raise their homes -- if they have to raise them at all.

Officials are urging people to elevate their houses now because they are eligible for federal financial aid. About $350 million of New York City's and $600 million of New Jersey's Sandy relief funding has been allocated for the repair of single- and two-family homes, which could help defray the cost.

But it's still unclear how that money will be distributed among individual homeowners, which means many of them could be on their own financially.

The process of house-raising is laborious and prohibitively expensive, especially for working-class people who are already saddled with storm repair costs. Even a small cottage can cost $60,000 to elevate, while a sprawling multilevel home could run upwards of $250,000.

"You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't," said Karly Carozza, who is living with her parents while she and her husband decide when to repair their small ranch house in Brick Township, N.J. "It seems like waiting makes the most sense, but when people have nowhere to go, how long do you want them to wait?"

Officials say now is the time to prepare for the future: Sandy will happen again. But many residents don't believe them.

They think Sandy was a fluke, a storm to end all storms, the kind they won't ever see again. And they're preparing to do battle with the government for the right to continue living just as they have for generations -- in low-lying abodes that were never built to endure storms, let alone the fierce hurricanes of the 21st century.

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In Broad Channel in the New York City borough of Queens, where the air smells like fish and ramshackle bungalows are built along the docks, few people are raising their homes. The firefighters, police officers and auto mechanics who live on this marshy island simply can't afford it.

Yet residents here are staring down a possible A or V flood zone designation, putting them squarely on target to incur astronomical insurance premiums. FEMA defines an A zone as an area that has a 26 percent chance of flooding over 30 years. A V zone is the same, but adds the potential hazard of storm waves, increasing insurance premiums.

"The thing that scares me is that we've invested and worked on our houses our whole life," said Frank Porcella, who took out a mortgage to pay for flooding damage to his bungalow. "And now they'll make this place and the area around it a ghost town."

Porcella, who is retired and lives on a fixed income, didn't even consider raising his home. If his flood insurance goes up, he'll simply walk away from his house and his mortgage. He's gambling that the proposed rules will be changed and that another Sandy won't happen again in his lifetime.

Several months before Sandy hit, Congress quietly passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, a bill that authorized skyrocketing premium increases for people in flood-prone communities.

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