In Sandy's Wake, Flood Zones And Insurance Rates Re-Examined

In Sandy's Wake, Flood Zones And Insurance Rates Re-Examined

6:00pm Oct 30, 2013
An emergency responder helps evacuate two people with a boat after their neighborhood in Little Ferry, N.J., was flooded.
An emergency responder helps evacuate two people with a boat after their neighborhood in Little Ferry, N.J., was flooded.
Andrew Burton / Getty Images
  • An emergency responder helps evacuate two people with a boat after their neighborhood in Little Ferry, N.J., was flooded.

    An emergency responder helps evacuate two people with a boat after their neighborhood in Little Ferry, N.J., was flooded.

    Andrew Burton / Getty Images

  • Neighbors in the Rockaway section of Queens, N.Y., survey homes and businesses destroyed by Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 30, 2012.

    Neighbors in the Rockaway section of Queens, N.Y., survey homes and businesses destroyed by Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 30, 2012.

    Spencer Platt / Getty Images

  • In one Rockaway neighborhood the historic boardwalk washed away during the storm.

    In one Rockaway neighborhood the historic boardwalk washed away during the storm.

    Spencer Platt / Getty Images

  • A resident traverses flooded streets as cleanup operations begin in Hoboken, N.J. The storm surge triggered deep flooding in low-lying neighborhoods.

    A resident traverses flooded streets as cleanup operations begin in Hoboken, N.J. The storm surge triggered deep flooding in low-lying neighborhoods.

    Jeff Zelevansky / Getty Images

  • Barbara Young tosses sand out her front door in Long Beach, N.Y. The storm caused massive flooding across much of the Eastern Seaboard.

    Barbara Young tosses sand out her front door in Long Beach, N.Y. The storm caused massive flooding across much of the Eastern Seaboard.

    Andrew Burton / Getty Images

  • Jackie Hoey inspects the first floor of her Long Beach, N.Y., home, which experienced heavy flooding.

    Jackie Hoey inspects the first floor of her Long Beach, N.Y., home, which experienced heavy flooding.

    Andrew Burton / Getty Images

  • In the Ocean Breeze area of Staten Island, water continued to flood neighborhoods on Nov. 1, 2012. Most homes in the seaside community were inundated by the ocean surge caused by Sandy.

    In the Ocean Breeze area of Staten Island, water continued to flood neighborhoods on Nov. 1, 2012. Most homes in the seaside community were inundated by the ocean surge caused by Sandy.

    John Moore / Getty Images

  • Old photographs are laid out on a car hood to dry after being removed from a flooded home in Seaside Heights, N.J. At the time, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie estimated that Superstorm Sandy had cost his state $29.4 billion in damage and other economic lo

    Old photographs are laid out on a car hood to dry after being removed from a flooded home in Seaside Heights, N.J. At the time, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie estimated that Superstorm Sandy had cost his state $29.4 billion in damage and other economic lo

    Mark Wilson / Getty Images

  • The Rockaway section of Queens, in New York City, was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy. Many people in the neighborhood, shown here on October 30, 2012, lost power.

    The Rockaway section of Queens, in New York City, was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy. Many people in the neighborhood, shown here on October 30, 2012, lost power.

    Spencer Platt / Getty Images

  • One Year Ago: Homes in Mantoloking, N.J., sit in ruin at the end of a bridge that was wrecked by flooding from Superstorm Sandy.

    <strong>One Year Ago:</strong> Homes in Mantoloking, N.J., sit in ruin at the end of a bridge that was wrecked by flooding from Superstorm Sandy.

    Mario Tama / Getty Images

When Sandy blew into East Coast communities a year ago, it was flooding that did the most damage.

That's in part because the average sea level has risen over the past century — about a foot along the mid-Atlantic coast. That made it easier for the storm to push the ocean onto the land.

And scientists say there will be many more Sandy-style storms — that is, torrential rain and wind that create heavy coastal flooding — and they'll be more frequent than in the past. But preparing people for that means changing the way they live, and that's proving politically difficult.

Sandy, in fact, wasn't such a powerful hurricane — "only" a Category 1 as it approached the shore. But a few coincidences made it freakish. Sandy hit the coastline right at high tide. It hit straight on, at a 90-degree angle. And the storm covered an enormous area.

All that happening at once is pretty unusual. But William Sweet, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says there's one thing that will be part of every new Atlantic coast storm — a higher sea level.

"Sea level is changing and it is going to keep changing regardless of who or what is causing it," Sweet says. "And the impacts are going to become more and more frequent and severe and we're going to have to deal with it."

Sweet and his NOAA colleagues agree with the majority of ocean scientists — that if climate continues to warm, average sea level will continue to rise by as much as 2 feet more by 2050. That's because a warmer ocean expands in volume. Also, landlocked snow and ice will melt into the ocean. Sea level rise is higher on average along the Eastern Seaboard than most parts of the world because of wind and ocean circulation patterns in the Atlantic.

And a rising ocean means that in the future, garden-variety storms will create the kind of flooding that big storms did in the past. NOAA says the type of storm you see only once a century or so now could hit every few decades by 2050 — and every few years if sea level rises as much as some computer models predict.

"Storms of lesser magnitude and storm surges that weren't as high as Sandy will have more and more importance in terms of the way that we live our lives," Sweet says.

One thing certain to change is the way people insure property against flooding. The federal National Flood Insurance Program requires most businesses and homeowners in high-risk flood zones to buy flood insurance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency administers the program and is now remapping those flood zones. And the new zones are a lot bigger.

Robert Moore, who studies flood policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says New York City formerly had about 35,000 buildings sitting in flood zones. That number has now doubled. "The new maps that were made in the wake of Hurricane Sandy show a much larger flood plain that encompasses about 67,000 buildings," Moore says. The increase is due to changes in sea level up to now, and to changes in the built environment that shift the way runoff moves.

FEMA, in fact, expects that the increase in flood risk areas and the number of people who live in them will continue. And that's without factoring in computer model predictions about the rise of sea levels in the future.

So, clearly more people are going to have to buy flood insurance. And insurance will cost more. That's because of a 2012 law that radically changes the flood insurance program. The law eliminates subsidies that have kept the premium rates for such policies artificially low for decades. Moore says that in some places, one-third of flood insurance policyholders have been getting subsidies.

"We've been subsidizing people to live in some of the riskiest parts of the country," Moore says, "and that is one of the reasons the national flood insurance program is so deeply in debt." Once FEMA pays off damages from Sandy, the agency will be $25 billion in the red.

Charging more for flood insurance would help mitigate that loss. But it's also a bitter pill for many. "There's a lot of pushback," Moore says. "People obviously have a little bit of sticker shock."

There's been so much sticker shock that the law passed last year (known as the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, after its main congressional sponsors) is already in jeopardy.

This week, several members of Congress are proposing a bill to delay the insurance reforms called for in the Biggert-Waters act for as much as four years. Two other bills that would soften effects of the increased cost are in play as well.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez calls FEMA's new flood maps and insurance rates "a man-made disaster."

"Many homeowners will be forced to pay premiums that are several times higher than the current rate they pay," Menendez says.

Now, raising premiums was exactly what last year's law was expected to do. So apparently the new debate will be: How do politicians bail out FEMA without raising the rates of the people who vote them in — or out — of office?

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

When Hurricane Sandy blew into East Coast a year ago, it caused billions of dollars of damage, mostly from flooding. In part, that's because the average sea level has risen over the past century, about a foot along the mid-Atlantic Coast. And that change made it easier for the storm to push the ocean onto the land. Scientists say we can expect more super storms, like Sandy, which means unless people leave their coastal homes they can expect more destruction in the future.

But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, convincing people not to live in potential flood zones is proving politically difficult.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Sandy was only a Category One hurricane when it hit the U.S. but coincidences made it freakish. Sandy struck the coastline at high tide. It hit directly at a 90-degree angle. And the storm covered an enormous area. All that happening at once is pretty unusual. But oceanographer William Sweet says there's one thing that will be part of every new Atlantic Coast storm.

WILLIAM SWEET: We look at it from sea level and say sea level is changing. And it is going to keep changing regardless of who or what is causing it. And their impacts are going to become more and more frequent and severe and we're going to have to deal with it.

JOYCE: Sweet and his colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agree with the majority of ocean scientists. If climate continues to warm, average sea level will continue to rise, as much as two feet by 2050. That's because a warmer ocean expands. Also, land-locked snow and ice will melt into the ocean. And a rising ocean means garden variety storms will do what big storms did in the past.

NOAA says the kind of storm you see once a century or so now could hit every few decades by 2050. And every few years if sea level rises as much as some computer models predict.

SWEET: Storms of lesser magnitude and storm surges that weren't as high as Sandy will have more and more importance, in terms of the way that we, you know, live our lives.

JOYCE: The way, for example, we insure property against flooding. The federal National Flood Insurance Program requires most businesses and homeowners in high-risk flood zones to buy flood insurance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now remapping those flood zones. And the new zones are a lot bigger.

Robert Moore, who studies flood policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says New York City formerly had about 35,000 buildings sitting in flood zones. Now that's doubled.

ROBERT MOORE: The new maps that were made in the wake of Hurricane Sandy show a much larger floodplain that encompasses about 67,000 buildings.

JOYCE: FEMA, in fact, expects a 45 percent increase in flood risk areas by the end of the century. So, more people are going to have to buy flood insurance and insurance will cost more. That's because of a 2012 law that radically changes the flood insurance program. The law eliminates subsidies to policyholders that kept rates artificially low for decades.

Moore says in some places, one-third of policyholders got subsidies.

MOORE: We've been subsidizing people to live in some of the riskiest parts of the country. And that is one of the reasons why the National Flood Insurance Program is so deeply in debt.

JOYCE: In debt to the tune of about $25 billion.

Charging more for flood insurance would help shore up that loss but it's also a bitter pill for many.

MOORE: There's a lot of push-back. People obviously have a little bit of sticker shock.

JOYCE: So much so that now the new law is already in jeopardy. This week, members of Congress are proposing a bill to delay the insurance reforms for as much as four years. Two other bills to soften the cost increase are in play as well. Democrat New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez called FEMA's new flood maps and insurance rates a manmade disaster.

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: Many homeowners will be forced to pay premiums that are several times higher than the current rate they pay.

JOYCE: Now, raising premiums was, in fact, what last year's law was expected to do. So, apparently, the new debate will be: How do politicians bail out FEMA without raising rates for the people who vote them in or out of office?

Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station