Hundreds of residents attended an informational forum the Federal Emergency Management Agency hosted at Long Beach City Hall on Wednesday, when two dozen people hit FEMA officials with questions on many subjects, including post-Hurricane Sandy reductions in rates for labor and materials for rebuilding, the application process for Small Business Administration loans, and a federal rule prohibiting a landlord from challenging the depreciation of his two-family home.
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Most inquires, though, centered on insurance payouts on premiums, or lack thereof, and two FEMA programs: Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC) and Hazard Mitigation (HM). Scott Kemins, the city’s building commissioner, joined the FEMA officials in who tried to provide answers to the hurricane-weary community.
While the city awaits state approval for Hazard Mitigation and several hundred residents are already on a list for the program that would provide them funds for mitigation their storm-damaged properties, others asked when funds will be available. One woman said she called the state Office of Emergency Management, which manages HM, and was told that there are three project managers that review all state-wide applications for the program who have not even completed applications for storms prior to Hurricane Irene in August 2011.
“When I pressed her for a timeline, and we were talking about actually seeing money, she said we’re looking at probably another three years,” the woman said of her talks with an Office of Emergency Management official. She asked FEMA officials if the agency could pressure the state to hire more project managers.
Philip Parr, FEMA’s deputy federal coordinating officer who led Wednesday’s meeting, indicated that it could take a year from the time of the hurricane before funds are made available through HM. “The local communities and FEMA are expediting that process as quickly as possible,” Parr said. “I can’t tell you that that funding will be available in six days, six weeks or six months.”
FEMA’s ICC program provides individual homeowners $31,900 to cover costs of mitigation to reduce flood risk only at primary homes that local inspectors have deemed “substantially damage.” A mitigation measure is to raise the height of a house according to FEMA regulations for new building or rebuilding in designated flood zones like Long Beach.
Walks resident Bob Reed asked if homeowners could use ICC and HM funds to build a new home, rather than merely raise the existing structure. Greg Coulson, a FEMA floodplain management task force leader, said HM grants normally require a 25 percent match, and ICC funds, made available through a homeowner’s flood insurance policy, could be used as part of that match.
“But you have to wait until the state has established the priorities and fleshed out the programs, and there’s going to be a delay in that,” Coulson said.
Another homeowner inquired about the zoning or buildings codes FEMA uses for its height mandates. “With the competing jurisdictions, you run into New York State building code, maybe Nassau [County], maybe [the City of] Long Beach, and which one takes precedence to comply to take advantage of the program that FEMA is supplying,” he said.
Kemins explained that the National Flood Insurance Program, which mandates these regulations, requires that first-floor elevations must comply with what flood insurance maps dictate for a particular area. He explained that Long Beach is comprised of different zones, NFIP rate maps puts city’s houses anywhere from eight to 18 feet above sea level, and the state requires an additional two feet of elevation.
Reed asked that if homeowners rebuild according to FEMA’s guidelines, is it possible those guidelines might change and thereby render newly elevated homes below code. Coulson said that it is possible because there are numerous elements that impact flood maps, the 25-year-old data of which he suggested is outdated and subject to change.
Kemins noted that homeowners aren’t obligated to elevate their houses if they aren’t deemed substantially damaged, but the building commissioner cautioned that they still must consider the financial implications of flood insurance down the road.
“In five years, if your house is four feet below the required base-flood elevations of the current map, your flood insurance is going to be in excess of $9,000 a year,” he warned.
Coulson said flood insurance would reflect actuarial costs. “For people who are below the base flood elevation it will cost significantly more than it has in the past,” he said.
One man asked about building a seawall in Long Beach, as a way of possibly reducing such costs. "I'm just anticipating that we're going to be crushed with these new premiums that we’re going to get stuck with the flood insurance," he said. “It’s going to make the houses unaffordable for a lot of our people and it’s going to impact substantially our resale value.”
Another resident asked about if and when insurance companies are required to start paying out policies, a question she said she contacted several levels of government for an answer but to no avail. Diana Kidder, FEMA’s HM insurance task force leader, said that companies have 60 days to pay out policies, but she was unaware of any timetable requirement.
“There’s no accountability,” the resident countered.
The forum’s two-hour question and answer session was followed by a breakout period in which FEMA officials talked further with residents, but not before they received both criticism and praise.
One resident told FEMA officials he was frustrated, “because I don’t think you have the answers,” he said, as the Q&A neared conclusion. But James Hodge, chairman of the Board of Directors at the city’s Martin Luther King Center, thanked them for the forum and more.
“I’d like to thank all of the FEMA people that are here from all over the country that have been working day in and day out and working tirelessly,” he said.
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