Sometimes a federal agency just can’t win. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the flood insurance situation and so-called “hidden flood risk.” The term applies to properties that lie outside FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Areas but still have a moderate or high risk of flooding. FEMA has been criticized for not being stringent enough with its mapping—that is, for leaving some at-risk areas out of the flood zones and perhaps giving people a false sense of security—but it’s also coming under fire for doing just the opposite.
An article in the New York Times this week describes the resistance the agency is coming up against as it redraws flood maps in New York City. Although remapping is a process that’s taking place all over, New York is particularly difficult. Its many miles of pricy coastal real estate mean that more people live in high-risk flood zones in New York than in any other US city. The destruction from Hurricane Sandy has left people skittish about future storms—not enough to stop building or buying property in the danger zones, but nervous nonetheless. And New York is a guinea pig—the first major city to be remapped with climate change, sea level rise, and more-powerful storms worked into the equation—so it will in many ways be a model for what happens in other coastal cities.
In New York, as elsewhere, the new flood maps will affect zoning and building standards as well as real estate prices. Owners of properties in newly designated flood zones will need to purchase flood insurance to qualify for federally backed mortgages, and that insurance is expensive; some worry that the new maps will lead to a foreclosure crisis if people can neither afford the insurance nor sell their homes. And while about 20% of buildings nationwide were built before flood maps were in place, in New York it’s about 80%, so a tremendous number of property owners are in for a shock when they learn of their new flood classification.
The article quotes the president of a homeowners cooperative, reporting on the attitude of her neighbors: “They’re not even afraid of the storms, because with the flood, you can pray—‘Jesus, please don’t let the flood come.’ They’re more afraid of the regulations and the flood insurance.”
The article also includes examples of the extremes to which people will go to avoid a high-risk classification. On new construction, it’s relatively easy to elevate buildings or build barriers into the design of a development. Older buildings, though, have fewer options. One homeowner spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to elevate the house 20 feet, thus avoiding the insurance requirement. Then there’s the 1900-era 10-story building in TriBeCa that’s being converted from offices to luxury condos. Although only a small corner of the building falls within a new flood zone, that makes the entire building subject to the new regulations. “The architects proposed an ingenious solution: slice two feet off the bottom corner of the building,” reports the article. The building is now exempt.