FEMA Flood Maps Engender Backlash

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Advisory flood maps issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the past four months were supposed to help people figure out how to rebuild higher and stronger. But in some parts of the region, the maps have sparked a backlash because they will potentially require thousands of homes to buy flood insurance that did not need to before.

The new flood maps, if approved, would add more than 65,000 structures in New York and New Jersey to the 100-year-flood zones—areas that FEMA believes face a 1 percent-a-year change of flooding. Everyone in those zones is required to get flood insurance if they have a federally-backed mortgage.

Many homeowners are finding fault with the maps, particularly those who find themselves for the first time in “V zones”, areas within the flood zones that are subject to the velocity of waves. To qualify for low insurance rates, homeowners in V zones must not only build above the flood elevation, but also put their houses on stilts or use other methods so that the foundation can withstand wave action. 

The entire island of Broad Channel, Queens, in the middle of Jamaica Bay, is considered a V zone, according to the advisory maps. But Dan Mundy, the president of the civic association there, says there is no way the western side of the island could be hit by waves.

“All the hurricanes and nor’easters in this area come up in a counter-clockwise rotation,” Mundy said. “The wind always comes out of the East.”

Similarly, George Kasimos, a Realtor in Toms River, New Jersey, saw his house placed in an advisory V zone even though it is on a lagoon on the inland side of Barneget Bay. He formed a group, Stop FEMA Now, that has more than 2,000 Facebook members and is getting bigger and bigger crowds at gatherings.

“We don’t understand,” he said, “how a wave is going to miraculously come over the barrier islands, over a shallow bay, in front of a couple other bulkheads and then hit us with a three-foot wave.”

Within a few years, homeowners in V zones face insurance premiums as high as $31,000 a year if they do not elevate their homes or conform to wave-resistant building techniques. And that’s in part because the new maps come at the same time that insurance premiums are increasing 20 to 25 percent a year, thanks to federal legislation that’s supposed to reduce taxpayer subsidies to the troubled National Flood Insurance Program.

New York lawmakers have sponsored a bill that would slow the rate of increases in the premiums to just 5 percent a year for the next four years.

“Constituents have come up and talked about how they’re trying to rebuild their lives, that they lost everything in the storm,” said Congressman Gregory Meeks, a Democrat who represents Broad Channel and who co-sponsored the bill.

The new maps still have to be finalized and are not likely to take effect for 18 months or more. Already FEMA seems to backing away from some of the findings. Last week, the head of FEMA’s risk analysis division, Doug Bellomo, said the method for estimating how high the waves would be in certain areas may have been “overstated.”