The crowd grew so large last Saturday, one resident said the population of Broad Channel may have doubled. The neighborhood’s American Legion Hall on Cross Bay Boulevard could not hold everyone who showed up for South Queens’ rally against flood insurance premium hikes that begin this month.
It was just one of dozens of rallies held across the country at the same time, including in coastal communities in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Massachusetts and floodprone areas in states like Iowa and Illinois. The rallies were held in protest to the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act, a bill that supporters said seeks to put the National Flood Insurance Program on solid financial footing, but opponents fear will lead to the decimation of coastal communities like Howard Beach, Broad Channel and the Rockaways.
Residents from those areas, and from as far away as Rosedale, packed into the hall and those who couldn’t fit stood in the open field next door and listened to the list of speakers from outside. Many were carrying signs warning of impending doom if planned hikes in flood insurance premiums which the Federal Emergency Management Agency — the department implementing the Biggert-Waters Act — says are needed to comply with the law go into effect.
The legislation was passed last summer, only a few months before Hurricane Sandy, as part of a larger transportation appropriations bill. It was written in response to massive deficits in the NFIP because of a number of recent costly flooding events around the country that have left the program in the red.
The law eliminates premium subsidies for repetitive loss properties, property owners who do not take steps to mitigate — such as raising home elevations — secondary homes and certain properties that have been protected by grandfathering.
For some residents, flood premiums could go up to $12,000 a year, perhaps higher.
Inside the hall, a steady parade of civic leaders, residents and elected officials spoke about the risks rising flood premiums would impose on the communities they live in or represent.
Broad Channel resident Dan Mundy Jr. noted that the NFIP was created in order to spur coastline development that was deemed too risky due to the flood possibility.
“Since 1968, it’s been stated government policy to provide flood insurance at affordable rates in [coastal] areas to encourage development and in the process create a huge tax base,” he said. “The government has reaped billions of dollars from that and it’s been a good thing, so to change that overnight just makes no sense.”
When the law was enacted, the designated flood prone area did not include most of Howard Beach and southern Queens, but post-Sandy and with new FEMA maps being drawn to incorporate Sandy’s storm surge flooding, they do.
Roger Gendron, president of the Hamilton Beach Civic Association, said many of the homes placed into the new FEMA maps — including nearly all of Howard Beach— don’t belong there.
“The new flood maps are extremely flawed,” he said. “Areas that have never flooded before Sandy hit were placed in new flood areas. It’s left us all in limbo. The areas that are affected the most are the same areas that would suffer the most if this law goes into effect.”
Gendron said many residents in the area have family ties that go back decades and will be unable to stay in the community if the flood insurance goes into effect.
Dorothy McCloskey, a resident of Howard Beach, said she feared the flood insurance rate increase would destroy the neighborhood.
“If the insurance rates go up as high as they say, we’d be ruined,” she said. “My husband is retired. We did everything right. And now they tell me I have to come up with another $12,000 a year?”
She added that her husband grew up in the house they live in, and it had never flooded like it did in Sandy.
“They have never said anything like that,” she said. “And yet we are in a high-risk flood zone? This is a money-making racket.”
Even the law’s Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California), has rescinded her support for the bill.
“Since the law was enacted, we have seen a slew of confusion in FEMA mapping,” Waters said in a statement last month. “In addition, many families now face increased costs that will make homeownership so expensive that many would be forced from their homes or find it impossible to sell. This is unacceptable.”
The measure’s prime sponsor, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Illinois), was defeated for re-election last November.
But Congress, locked in an ongoing battle over government funding, the debt ceiling and President Obama’s healthcare law has not even touched the issue.
Waters and several other legislators have introduced a bill that would delay premium increases, but that legislation has not even received a hearing yet.
The City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on Congress to make substantial changes to the Biggert-Waters Act, including reducing the premiums imposed; allowing properties newly mapped into flood zones — as is the case in most of Howard Beach — to participate in a phase-in of rates; allowing for current homeowners receiving subsidized rates to continue getting them until they sell their homes and allowing higher deductibles and lower premiums for homeowners who take flood mitigation actions.
“We didn’t just pass the resolution to say ‘We got to do something about this problem,’” said Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park). “We gave Congress very specific recommendations.”
Ulrich also warned that the bill could lead to the Rockaways and South Queens seeing a rash of foreclosures if the hikes go into effect.