Some LIers fight inclusion on flood zone mapsBy BILL BLEYER AND THOMAS MAIER
August 22, 2010
Long Islanders convinced the federal disaster agency has improperly classified their property as flood-prone - costing them thousands of dollars in insurance premiums - have begun to fight back. And some of them have won.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency added more than 25,000 Long Island properties - most in Nassau - to its flood zone maps when they were updated last September.
Since then, 347 property owners have filed challenges with FEMA, contending the new maps are illogical and inaccurate. And 52 percent of the cases that have been decided went in favor of the homeowner.
One of those homeowners is Anne Boxenhorn, 69, of Bellmore who spent more than five weeks dealing daily with FEMA, her bank and town officials and hiring a surveyor to get removed from the flood maps.
Boxenhorn and husband, Jerold, have lived in their house near the water for 21 years but knew their property had some elevation. So when they got a letter from the bank last year saying that they were now in a flood zone and needed to buy flood insurance, Anne was livid.
"I said 'This is ridiculous.' I am close to the water but I have never had any flooding."
She said the lowest price quote she received for flood coverage was $2,200. "I was very, very upset because it was money I can't afford to spend. We are retired on a fixed income."
Surveyor finds land high enough
Anne Boxenhorn began gathering information, filled out the FEMA application and hired a surveyor for $550 - "a lot of money for a retired couple." But the company determined that the lowest part of her house was more than 13 feet above sea level so she got a letter from FEMA in January saying she had been removed from the flood maps.
"It was a big struggle but people should realize they can fight it," the retired credit manager said. "It was very, very time-consuming. It was like a full-time job for five or six weeks. But I really felt a sense of accomplishment."
FEMA added the properties to the maps as part of the federal government's efforts to protect homeowners from devastating financial losses in the event of flooding from heavy rains or a tidal surge resulting from a nor'easter or a hurricane. FEMA said its new maps are based on better technology and measuring criteria to determine the chances of flooding.
But the changes have generated anger and confusion among those newly designated as flood prone who suddenly found their mortgage banks requiring flood coverage, and those who saw their house insurance premiums jump from about $400 to thousands. Those affected complained to FEMA at public forums and inundated elected officials with requests for help.
"They don't know why they have to now pay for flood insurance when they haven't had a flood in 20 years," said Mary Colvin, regional head of FEMA's flood insurance program.
"But that doesn't mean there isn't a risk or that it wouldn't occur."
On Wednesday, Colvin told Newsday that because of the widespread financial concerns, the agency was planning to allow homeowners in the flood zone to revert to lower rates starting in January. The relief will last two years.
In the meantime, Colvin said, if people believe they don't belong in the high-risk area, they should appeal. But others say the process isn't easy, and can cost homeowners up to $1,000 in surveyor's, engineering, and FEMA fees.
"You have to have an elevation certificate from a surveyor and fill out all the paperwork," said Denis Miller, a Long Beach insurance agent with many South Shore clients in flood zones.
Some owners don't follow through
On Long Island, 121 property owners applied but never followed through, and 85 applications were rejected. "It is possible that applicants did not understand what they needed to demonstrate" - that the lowest elevation of the ground next to the foundation of the house must be higher than the base flood elevation on the maps.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), whose office has received many complaints about the maps, said FEMA's approval of more than half the challenges decided so far is a sign that the agency's mapping process is flawed. "FEMA has to clean up their act, especially when people are being asked to spend hundreds of dollars more in flood insurance when they really don't belong in this faulty system," he said.
King encouraged property owners who question their inclusion on the maps to take advantage of FEMA's review process. "If they have any doubt, I would appeal" he said.
The maps were changed because of a Congressional mandate in the early 1980s requiring that the flood zones be updated to reflect changing weather patterns, erosion, and development over the years that changed the contours of the land and its ability to absorb runoff.
Colvin said FEMA has greatly improved its flood mapping techniques in recent decades, but she conceded the process isn't perfect. "There isn't a science that can tell 100 percent ," she said. "You can't always tell where the water will go."
FEMA says that because the updating was done on a broad scale with aerial survey photos and topographical maps rather than measurements on individual properties, there is room for error that can be corrected with a survey done for a property owner showing the land or at least the structure is above the lowest water level expected in a flood.
For everyone who appeals, there are many more property owners who have simply paid up rather than fight FEMA. Others are ignoring their inclusion on the map, taking their chances without flood insurance because they don't have mortgages that require the coverage.
Insurance agents say appeals to be removed from the maps are rare because people are daunted by the appeals process, the cost or both. "Most people are just accepting it," said Kirsten Squires of Maran Corporate Risk Associates of Southampton.
One homeowner who accepted the maps and the resulting higher premiums is Anthony Mauro, 53, who has lived in his Merrick home since 1992 and never had flood insurance until last year when his home became part of the flood zone.
"I have never flooded in this house," he said. "Nobody on this block has ever flooded."
But he is paying $1,300 a year, "which is a lot of money," because he was told fighting his inclusion in the map would require hiring an engineer and surveyor. "That's a lot of money, also," he said.
Many just reduce coverage
Rather than appealing, Miller said, most of his clients reduced their contents coverage and increased deductibles to reduce their premiums to between $900 and $1,400.
But he added that "most people who didn't have mortgages didn't purchase policies" at a discount when they had the chance before the maps were approved. "A lot of people without a basement have never had a flood."
Government officials say they fear that if a storm hits, the thousands who have decided to forego coverage could leave governments confronting destroyed homes and property owners who have nowhere to turn for assistance with rebuilding.
The chances for the kind of scenario are at their peak starting now. The height of the hurricane season is August through mid-November, and the National Weather Service has predicted this year will be worse than average for tropical storms.
"In that kind of a catastrophic event, you're going to end up with a situation where it would be unthinkable," said Nassau County Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick). "It would be an unparalleled social crisis - 10,000 people not only without any means of shelter, but without any means of restoring shelter."
When the whole appeals process was over, Boxenhorn decided to keep her flood insurance - at an annual cost of $335 - for at least one year as a way of savoring her victory - even though she's convinced she will never need it.
And now she is helping next-door neighbor Joanna Galanis prepare her appeal to FEMA to be removed from the flood maps.
"We should never have gone through this," Boxenhorn said. "They just drew an arc on a map. It's done by an out-of-town company and they don't even know the area. So it's up to individuals like me to fight it."