In New York, Drawing Flood Maps Is a ‘Game of Inches’
Posted January 7, 2018 8:25 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — With its 520 miles of coastline and thousands of acres of waterfront development, New York has more residents living in high-risk flood zones than any other city in the country. Hurricane Sandy, the devastating October 2012 storm, did $19 billion in damage to the city, and the pace of development along the water has only increased.
Now, after a year in which hurricanes ravaged Houston and the Caribbean, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is substantially redrawing New York’s flood maps for the first time in three decades. It is a painstaking process that will affect tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, determining how and where buildings can be constructed and the cost of flood insurance on everything from modest bungalows to luxury skyscrapers.
New York will be the first major metropolis to be remapped taking into account the realities of climate change, like rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms.
The new models, for coastal areas stretching from Cape May, New Jersey, to the Hudson Valley in New York, will be used to shape the city’s future zoning, development and building standards to help it become more sustainable. As a result, FEMA and city officials say, New York could be an example for other places around the country.
But the maps will also be shaped by the history of New York, where 80 percent of properties were built before the current flood maps and requirements were in place, as opposed to 20 percent nationally, noted J. Andrew Martin, acting chief of FEMA’s risk analysis branch in New York. If those older buildings end up in high-risk zones, their owners could be required to buy flood insurance or make expensive modifications, adding costs that are beyond the reach of many working-class homeowners.
The collision of science with political and economic realities means that the battle over how many more people will fall in the flood zones will be fought house by house, block by block, with millions of dollars at stake.
“It’s a game of inches,” said Elizabeth Malone, program manager of resiliency and insurance at Neighborhood Housing Services Brooklyn, a community group that counsels residents in flood-prone areas.
In New York, where more than 50,000 people are homeless, and where the mayor has pledged to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing by the end of 2022, the FEMA maps could add further financial strain.
The city has pushed back against FEMA. The agency proposed preliminary maps in 2013 — soon after Hurricane Sandy — that would have doubled both the area of flood zones and the number of people inside them. The city, in an unusual move, successfully challenged the scientific assumptions underlying the new maps.
In the coming weeks, formal discussions on the maps between New York City and the agency will likely begin.
There is no time to waste, said Martin, who has been on assignment in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. “Sandy may not happen again like it did,” he said, “but there will be something very similar, and it’s not that far off.”
But the process will not be fast, and homeowners should be prepared to be in “limbo” for years, said Daniel A. Zarrilli, the city’s chief resilience officer and senior director for climate policy and programs. That may not be ideal, he said, but it is “better than it could have been had the city not worked to protect affordability and incorporate climate risks onto the maps. We don’t want to jack up insurance rates and cause a foreclosure crisis, and we want a smoother glide path to a better flood insurance program, and more accurate maps.”
An Affordability Challenge
The first time FEMA mapped the city was in 1983. Since then, only minor changes have been made. The agency was working on an update, as requested by the city, when Hurricane Sandy hit. A month later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg underscored the urgency of that task in a speech at a downtown hotel by displaying a map with the current flood zone, followed by a second with the areas actually flooded by the hurricane.
The audience gasped at how far the flooding had exceeded the mapped zone.
In the highest-risk zones on a flood map, waves can go higher than 3 feet. In the next zone, an area has a 1 percent chance of flooding in any year, in what is called a 100-year flood. In a moderate-risk zone, an area has a 0.2 percent chance of flooding in any year, in what is called a 500-year flood.
Put another way, houses in a high-risk zone have a 1-in-4 chance of being flooded over the course of a 30-year mortgage, compared with a 10 percent risk of having a fire. Federal law requires anyone with a mortgage in the highest-risk areas to get flood insurance.
But being on the map is not a particularly reliable predictor that a home might get flooded: About 80 percent of people who suffered flood damage from Hurricane Sandy did not have flood insurance.
Indeed, the maps have been long been viewed as inexact. One recent federal report estimated there was a 40 percent “uncertainty of flood predictions.”
In 2015, in its highly technical 180-page challenge to FEMA’s proposed new maps, the city argued that the federal agency had overstated the base flood elevation — the height of flooding that might be expected in a 100-year flood — by 2 feet in some areas. FEMA also inflated the flood zone area by a third, the city claimed, “unnecessarily putting approximately 26,000 buildings and 170,000 residents” in higher-risk locations and “causing an affordability challenge.”
In March, at the city’s request, the RAND Corp. detailed the maps’ potential impact in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. The report found that the proposed maps could “reduce property values, increase loan defaults, lower tax revenue, and create hardships for current residents.”
One area that would be most affected is the largely working-class Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie, along the coast of Jamaica Bay. When the original maps are compared with FEMA’s 2013 proposal, the difference for the area is stark: Just 26 buildings were in the 1983 FEMA flood zone; under the revised maps, that would have skyrocketed to 5,000 buildings.
Canarsie, which is home to many Caribbean immigrants, has a higher percentage of owner-occupied homes with mortgages than the city as a whole. But in a neighborhood that weathered the city’s highest foreclosure rate after the subprime mortgage crisis, homeowners, many of whom rent out their basements to help pay the bills, have “little to put toward mitigating their flood risk,” according to a city report released in May.
Even though the final flood maps are years away, city officials and community groups are exhorting residents to take advantage of low-cost or even free programs funded by the state Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. By buying flood insurance now, officials say, policy holders would be grandfathered in and subject to only gradual increases once new maps are established.
With such coverage, premiums would probably be around $500 a year; without it, the annual rates could be $3,000.
But even $500 a year can be a hard sell in Canarsie, as made clear by a recent tour with Zachary Paganini, a doctoral student at the City University of New York, who has been researching what the looming changes to flood insurance might mean for the neighborhood.
On Flatlands Eighth Street, adjacent to Fresh Creek, Nelson Lopez, who does not have flood insurance, noted that his entire block was decimated by Hurricane Sandy, even though the houses were outside FEMA’s flood zones. If the revisions were made permanent, his house would go from a no-risk area to a high-risk zone.
“If you get flood insurance, you can’t pay your other bills,” he said. Theresa Fraser lives on Canarsie Road, a half mile from Jamaica Bay. About 2 feet of water rushed into her basement during Hurricane Sandy.
After seeking advice from the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, a nonprofit group that created a flood mapping tool, she purchased flood insurance to qualify for FEMA disaster funds. But Fraser, a day-care teacher, dropped it after a year because she could not afford the $600 annual premium.
“I definitely don’t want to be in a high-risk zone, but I don’t want to move,” said Fraser, a Guyanese immigrant who moved into her house 20 years ago. “You can’t always run from one place to the next because you’re worried things will happen.”
One clue to the possible contours of any future maps may be found in a single column buried in the city’s 2015 appeal.
The city estimated that if the scientific errors were removed from FEMA’s revision, the number of people in the flood zone could increase 6 percent to 230,000 over the 1983 maps, and the number of one- to four-family buildings could grow 38 percent to 36,000. Both increases would be much smaller than the 100 percent jumps suggested by FEMA’s initial maps. The Most Vulnerable ZIP Code
When homeowners suffer flood damage, they file claims. And of the 116 properties in New York City that have filed multiple FEMA claims in the past 20 years, more than a quarter have not been in the flood zone, according to an analysis prepared for The New York Times by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Two areas have had the most properties with repeat flood claims. One is Broad Channel, in Queens.
The other is the 10465 ZIP code in the Bronx, in the shadow of the Throgs Neck Bridge, home to Edgewater Park.
Edgewater Park is a tightknit and predominantly white community that feels more like a seaside village than a city neighborhood. But its beauty is also a burden, explained Deborah A. Roff, president of the Edgewater Park Owners Cooperative.
In 1992, a nor’easter nearly drowned the neighborhood. Then there was the concussive trifecta of Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Sandy from 2011-2012, strewing debris far inland and leaving gashes in houses that remain uninhabitable.
But now, what really worries Roff and her neighbors is not the next storm, but the federal government.
“They’re not even afraid of the storms, because with the flood, you can pray — ‘Jesus, please don’t let the flood come,'” Roff said. “They’re more afraid of the regulations and the flood insurance because they’re getting the bill, and they’ve got to pay that bill.”
The various maps the residents have used to determine the flood boundaries — whether from FEMA, the Department of City Planning or other sources — offer conflicting results about whether a house is in the flood plain, Roff said. On her own block of bungalows, she said, one homeowner pays $5,000 a year in premiums. A few doors down, another does not have insurance. Just beyond that, a new homeowner is spending $300,000 to raise a house 20 feet like “a castle in the sky,” she said, thereby avoiding paying any insurance.
By working with the city planning department to allow for more flood-resilient construction and investment, to be paid for, at least in part, by higher maintenance fees, Roff hopes to minimize the community’s risks, even if it means that its residents have to pay more.
“Fair is fair — we don’t want to hurt anyone else by fixing this issue,” she said.
A Difference of 2 Feet
While the maps are probably years away, the process has already influenced how the city builds, especially along a waterfront that has become more accessible yet more expensive.
In 2010, the value of property within the 100-year floodplain was $58.7 billion, according to a report by Scott M. Stringer, city comptroller. By 2014, that value had climbed to $129.1 billion, making it more urgent to invest in resiliency projects, Stringer concluded.
Moreover, FEMA’s 2013 proposal to expand the flood maps applies to all new or substantially improved buildings. That means more buildings are now subject to tougher building codes enacted after Hurricane Sandy.
Some residential and commercial developers are embracing the standards as a vital long-term investment.
One such project is Greenpoint Landing in Brooklyn, an 11-building, 22-acre development that will add 5,500 apartments on a former industrial site. The project, now under construction, features a terraced esplanade park that rises like steps from the East River, which will be filled with absorbent material to protect against storm surges, high winds and more.
Ultimately, the project will raise the waterfront by about 3-5 feet above the existing coastline, said Karen Tamir, principal with James Corner Field Operations, a landscape architecture and urban planning firm that is designing the project.
In October, the Waterfront Alliance, a coalition that works to protect New York’s waterways and shoreline, said the project had satisfied the alliance’s Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines, a new ratings system reminiscent of the LEED certification program for green buildings.
“If you bake the retrofit into your costs now, it’s a marginal investment, and it protects your property and, more importantly, the people who will live there,” said Roland Lewis, the alliance’s president and chief executive. In some cases, however, the reaction has been to get out of the flood zone, in any possible way.
Consider a project in Tribeca to convert a 10-story office building at 11 Beach St. into luxury condominiums priced at up to $12 million apiece.
Constructed in 1900, the building was outside the original FEMA flood zones. But the southeast corner of the building would fall inside the newer zones, “thus subjecting the entire building to FEMA regulations,” according to documents filed with the city’s Department of Buildings in October 2013.
At first, the project’s developer, HFZ Capital Group, and its architects believed that they would be exempt, in part because the affected piece of the building, on the corner of Beach Street and St. Johns Lane, was so small. But city officials said that was not the case.
So the architects proposed an ingenious solution: slice 2 feet off the bottom corner of the building.
After consulting with FEMA, the city ultimately concluded that the proposal “shall absolve the applicant from complying.”