Fifty-three years ago, Howard Beach was very different than it is today.
New homes and streets were being laid out around what had always been a sparsely populated area, transforming it into the neighborhood we know now.
That was the last time a hurricane struck Queens with enough force to send a storm surge into Howard Beach.
But while 1960’s Hurricane Donna did flood part of the neighborhood, most of the few residents who lived in Howard Beach at that time and are still around were too young to remember it. Many of the homes — especially on the new side — weren’t built yet and the storm was not nearly as devastating as last year’s Hurricane Sandy.
Since Howard Beach became the neighborhood it is today, the worst flooding it has experienced was that from a few nor’easters and tropical storms that mainly affected Hamilton Beach or along Hawtree Creek and Shellbank Basin.
For many residents, Sandy was a fluke: a confluence of perfect conditions — a full moon, high tide, a hurricane making landfall from the west — that they believe will not be repeated for several lifetimes. For them, it is not a reason to change the neighborhood’s flood designations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would add thousands of residents to flood zones.
“My house has never flooded in 64 years,” said Dorothy McCloskley, whose husband grew up in her Howard Beach home. “The Army Corps of Engineers said this flood hasn’t happened in 200 years. I want to know, what are we going to do to fight the flood plan?”
The concern among many at last Thursday’s town hall meeting at PS 146 is what happens when the flood maps do change and much of the neighborhood is moved from Zone X — a lower flood risk — to the higher-risk Zone A. What would that do to residents flood insurance premiums if they don’t raise their homes, which in many cases is next to impossible to do?
Mike Klitzke, a disaster assistance representative for FEMA, said the maps were being altered even before the storm and the final ones will not be out for another two years.
When the first draft maps do come out later this year, there is a 90-day appeal process before preliminary maps are drawn. Then the city would have to adopt them.
Advisory maps were released by FEMA in February. They are aimed at preparing residents for the possible changes in a few years. But they will not affect flood insurance rates.
“The advisory maps will not affect insurance rates,” Klitzke said. “The insurance rates will be based on the current maps until the new maps come out.”
According to FEMA, anyone who does not let an insurance policy lapse will keep his or her current rates at least until the final maps are resolved in a few years.
The only other ways rates can potentially change in the meantime is when the new owner of a home takes out a new policy or if another flood strikes and substantially damages the home, which is defined as damage that leads to costs exceeding 50 percent of the market value of the house.
But the answer to what will happen after the flood maps change in a few years remained unresolved at the end of the meeting.
During the meeting, Dan Mundy Jr., president of the Broad Channel Civic Association, said his neighborhood was uniting to fight the changes and Howard Beach should do the same, arguing that a 100-year-old flood should not lead to a redesignation of the neighborhood’s flood risk.
Mundy mentioned the Biggert-Waters Act, a law passed three months before Sandy, that allowed FEMA to raise premiums by as much as 25 percent over the next few years. The law was a response to recent disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, as well as recent floods in Tennessee and Arkansas, that have forced FEMA to pay out billions.
“Homeowners feel they are between the proverbial rock and a hard place,” Mundy said. “You need to call your congressmen, let them know this will destroy your community.”
On Monday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn/Queens), who represents Howard Beach in Congress, said New York City is different than other flood-prone areas, such as South Florida and Louisiana, because many homes have basements and there are a number of apartment buildings and condos along the shore. Jeffries noted that various Brooklyn neighborhoods in the district, such as Canarise, Mill Basin, Brighton Beach and Sea Gate, have similar housing stock to Howard Beach.
“For many people here, basements are living quarters and are often rented out for supplemental income,” he said. “It’s just not possible to raise many of these homes.”
Though it is technically illegal to rent out basement apartments in New York City, Jeffries acknowledged that for many residents, it is an economic necessity and officials should recognize that.
“I want FEMA to take into account that reality and recognize the uniqueness of New York City,” he said.
Jeffries added that he is supporting a bill introduced by Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island) that would roll back the Biggert-Waters Act and stagger flood insurance premium increases over a longer length of time. He expects there will be a hearing on the bill soon.