If you had asked Paul Smith Jr., mayor of Union Beach, New Jersey, if he thought he’d still be talking about Hurricane Sandy today, more than six and a half years after the storm made landfall, he would have said no.
But years after the storm pummeled New Jersey’s coastline, Sandy is part of the present, not the past, for many of the residents Smith represents. His small beach town on the state’s northern coast, just 6,649 people spread over an area under 2 square miles, spent roughly $6.3 million cleaning debris off the beach. Half of the city’s homeowners were affected by the storm, and so far, more than 350 homes have been rebuilt or raised. But there’s still work to be done.
“The state helped a lot, but some people did decide to walk away from their homes,” says Smith. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out: what’s abandoned [and] where the empty spots are.”
Many New Jerseyans feel the same way. Since Sandy’s initial impact, which damaged 346,000 households up and down the coast, billions of dollars of state and federal money have been spent on repairing, readjusting, and making the state’s buildings more resilient.
But in conversations with a number of storm-impacted homeowners, and homeowners-turned-advocates, it’s clear there are big questions about the efficacy of the government’s strategy for helping communities recover from massive weather events and flooding—and what that means for today’s era of increased storm risk.
Just last October, on the sixth anniversary of the storm, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced a $50 million cross-the-finish-line fund, meant to assist homeowners who qualified for federal help but, for numerous reasons, have struggled to fully rebuild. The fund aims to help them obtain “some much-overdue normalcy in their lives,” according to Murphy, speaking at a press conference last fall in Union Beach.
Advocates from the New Jersey Organizing Project (NJOP), a citizen-led coalition of homeowners who lobbied for the finish-line fund, among other measures, say the delays show that the nation is unprepared to deal with massive floods and weather events. The families impacted by Sandy are the “canaries in the coal mine,” according to Amanda Devecka-Rinear, the NJOP’s founder, as increased flooding on both coasts and in the Midwest will see this recovery drama repeating itself.
“We need a major mentality shift, and need to accept the water is coming,” says Devecka-Rinear.
The story of Sandy recovery illustrates the various steps and stages of storm recovery, and the shortfalls of the current system. Every step of the way—outdated flood maps that don’t properly show the extent of flood risk, federal appropriations that need to be approved after each event, a constellation of different agencies offering different funding sources, and delays that require families to live in limbo—costs more money. This is especially true when it comes to prioritizing resilience and mitigation ahead of the next storm.
And as the current devastating Midwest floods suggest, along with last year’s record-breaking California wildfires, the nation will continue to face pressure from rising waters, extreme weather, and the resulting aftermath: damaged homes and businesses.
“One of the conundrums that we face is that [the challenges we face are] not just limited to storm surge flooding from the ocean,” says Tom Jeffery, senior hazard scientist at CoreLogic, a company that analyzes insurance risk. “People also want to live near rivers, or in the midst of scenic mountains, and that risk impacts the cost of insurance. We’re dealing with this on multiple fronts.”
How disaster funds arrive, and delays begin
For better or worse, the reaction to Hurricane Sandy shed light on the nation’s system of disaster recovery. As the storm hit in October 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was on the ground. But federal appropriations for long-term recovery and rebuilding weren’t passed by Congress and dispersed until March of 2013, at which point the state of New Jersey needed to set up a separate infrastructure and bureaucracy within its Department of Community Affairs to distribute funding.
The Sandy Recovery Division and ReNew New Jersey, which operated the $1 billion Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) fund, has to date assisted nearly 7,300 homeowners rebuild. Of that number, roughly 900 have qualified for help, but, as of this week, have incomplete projects.
Local control and flexibility is the logic behind this arrangement: States and cities understand local needs best, and programs like RREM made the deliberate decision to allow homeowners freedom to choose contractors to help get money disbursed as quickly as possible, while maintaining appropriate safeguards. The “breathtaking” levels of fraud and waste in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina led to a more cautious approach post-Sandy.
But as far as the NJOP and others are concerned, there isn’t enough knowledge transfer between groups helping places recover after different disasters. Since the states need to create and establish their own guidelines for disbursement, “we’re asking people to start from scratch every time,” says Devecka-Rinear.
Then there’s the issue of homeowners juggling different funding streams and rebuilding requirements. FEMA provided immediate support; the National Flood Insurance Program paid out claims to qualifying homeowners; and the Community Development Block Grant program, a big chunk of the money given to the state via the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was one of the primary sources for rebuilding. The Small Business Association also offers funds.
But ever since rebuilding began in earnest in 2013, homeowners have struggled to raise enough funds for rebuilding and meet evolving standards for resilience and flood readiness—all while finding temporary places to live. Numerous roadblocks appeared. Flood zone maps changed, requiring more costly repairs, like lofting homes on stilts. Flood insurance claims often didn’t pay enough for homeowners to rebuild to the new standards; in 2015, U.S. senators forced the NFIP to reopen claims, resulting in $300 million more for homeowners.
The New Jersey RREM program released money in separate cycles, or “tranches,” in 2013, 2014, and 2015, slowing down construction, and capped the award to $150,000 per home. A wave of contractor fraud took advantage of needy homeowners looking to rebuild; even the first consultants hired to run the New Jersey program, HGI, were quickly fired, which cost the state additional millions.
This back and forth sowed confusion for homeowners, who were stuck navigating various funds and programs and trying to figure out how high they needed to build their new homes. For many, the process took years, which meant that the rental housing assistance often dried up, creating a vicious cycle.
Funds initially awarded for recovery had to be used to cover rent and avoid mortgage foreclosures until other funds could be procured to help homeowners cobble together enough to finish their repairs.
For instance, Jody Stewart, another member of NJOP, was awarded $54,000 from flood insurance and $150,000 from RREM, and eventually spent $200,000 to elevate and repair her 1,200-square-foot home in Little Egg Harbor. It took a year for Stewart to receive her RREM grant, and she needed to spend another year in an apartment as her home was upgraded. Today, there are still thousands of New Jersey homeowners who aren’t home.
According to George Kasimos, a realtor who runs an advocacy group called Stop FEMA Now, his home in Toms River, New Jersey, was one of nearly 10,000 in town damaged by Sandy. During the course of his initial rebuild, he discovered that he needed to loft his home based on new FEMA flood-zone mapping. That meant an extra six to nine months of work, and, perhaps, an extra $200,000.
“I felt like I had been hit by two hurricanes,” he said. “The number-one problem is nobody is giving you the information needed to rebuild correctly.”
Kasimos says the miscommunication about flood mapping and insurance rates will be a huge issue going forward. FEMA, which created the maps used for the National Flood Insurance Program, has announced plans to bring maps up to date over the next few years. Homeowners fear increasingly expensive flood insurance premiums, making it more costly to stay in their homes, and potentially deterring future buyers.
Kasimos feels much of the limited federal flooding recovery money is simply going to waste. If, say, a house worth $300,000 requires $150,000 to properly elevate and prepare for the next big storm, is it better to spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to update, or to immediately buy them out and reclaim that land as a natural beachhead to help with future storm surges?
“You certainly can’t make everyone in the Jersey Shore leave,” he says, “but you can buy out a lot of people. These should be no-brainers. You can get three to four times more bang for the buck turning that home into green space, and putting money in that family’s pocket so they can start getting back on their feet.”
The current wave of repairs in New Jersey, for instance, backed by CDBG money, covers the bare minimum needed to meet flood insurance requirements. After a few rounds of changes to the flood zone map, Kasimos ended up elevating his home 9 feet, a foot over the FEMA recommendation. But he feels the additional height is more than worth it.
“Don’t elevate for today,” he says. “As much as I fight FEMA, I agree that if you’re going to elevate, you should be doing it 4 or even 5 feet above FEMA standards. Global warming is happening. If you’re getting federal funding, you should be worried about 100-year flooding and, currently, the CDBG money only gets you to a bare minimum.”
What Kasimos fears the most is coastal and waterfront real estate becoming a game of musical chairs. The wealthy and educated will stay away from the high-risk properties, or sell quickly before they drop in value. Eventually, he says, there will be two real estate economies in flood zones, and those without money and means will be caught when the music stops.
“Increases in flood insurance rates don’t affect all people in the same manner,” he says. “When the new flood maps are adopted, it’s like the IRS and the tax code. It’s very difficult to navigate.”
The system is changing, but is it fast enough in an era of increased flooding?
There are signs that some of the criticisms lobbed by advocates are being heard by lawmakers in D.C.: FEMA has rolled out its Risk Mapping 2.0 update to the flood mapping system, which would be implemented in October 2020 and aims to more accurately reflect flood risk in communities across the nation (though the steep, sudden rise in rates may cause financial strain). Federal funding for Harvey was released all at once, instead of in waves like Sandy.
Congress has also been debating a five-year extension to the National Flood Insurance Program, which has recently gone through a system of repeated temporary fixes and updates, and includes money for improved flood mapping and mitigation efforts. They plan to vote on the measure later this month. But these are small steps compared to what is ultimately required.
Devecka-Rinear suggests that, overall, the government needs better state and federal coordination, better mitigation funding, more coordination between programs, and more groups like NJOP that function like unions for storm survivors.
Every dollar spent on mitigation saves $4 to $6 in disaster recovery spending. Currently, much of the mitigation funding repays homeowners instead of providing grants upfront, which means only those with significant funding sources can take advantage.
“We just don’t have enough money set aside for this as a country,” she says. “We just don’t aggressively prepare.”
The story we tell ourselves about flood insurance, that we’re subsidizing homes in areas where people shouldn’t live due to climate risk, is old, Devecka-Rinear says. We need to think about how we responsibly move forward.
“What we learned from Sandy recovery is that working-class families, people of color, those on fixed incomes, the most vulnerable among us, get hardest hit,” she says. “We need to create an equitable program and mobilize our country to face a rising threat. It’s an incredible opportunity to come together, and frightening to think about the consequences if we don’t act.”