Homeowners waiting for payouts from the National Flood Insurance Program have an aggressive voice demanding faster processing speeds.
Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday at a news conference in Union Beach that response times from the program are unacceptable.
“It’s a disgrace,” Christie said. “They now have the money. Congress has appropriated and the president has signed that bill nearly a month ago, so now it is time for our federal representatives to get on the ball and get all over the National Flood Insurance Program to start getting these claims paid.”
The delays are not just affecting homeowners, Christie said. The state plans to use some of the billions of dollars in the $50.7 billion federal aid package approved last month for New Jersey, New York and other states to provide grants to communities and homeowners. The funds will help to bridge the gap between what insurance paid out and what the cost of rebuilding and retrofitting houses will be.
Christie said the state grants and grants from nonprofit groups can’t be calculated and distributed until flood insurance claims are paid.
Communities along the shore are clamoring for a limited pool of hazard mitigation grant money, which is part of a FEMA program to pay 75 percent of the cost of raising homes, improving infrastructure and, in some cases, buying out properties that are most at risk of repeated storm damage. The money for this program is part of the federal aid package.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office said Monday his state intends to use $400 million to buy out the most at-risk properties and return the land to its natural state. Christie was asked Monday during his appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” if he had similar plans.
“In fact, we already have a program like that that we will use some of this money to make larger. It’s called the Blue Acres program,” Christie told Letterman.
The Blue Acres program has been in place for years in New Jersey to buy out properties that are flooded repeatedly or to protect land in floodplains or near waterways. However, participation in the program is voluntary and property owners must be willing to sell at the market rate prior to storm damage.
New Jersey ranks third in the nation for the number of flood insurance policyholders along the coast and fifth in the nation for the total number of policy payouts since 1978, according to FEMA records.
Total flood losses in area coastal communities since 1978 have been highest in Atlantic City, Little Egg Harbor Township, Ocean City and Long Beach Island, according to FEMA records, but those totals are only a fraction of the losses in the Passaic River Basin area, which has seen repeated river flooding over the years.
In 2011, after Tropical Storms Irene and Lee dumped record rains across North Jersey, there was substantial interest in the Blue Acres program by homeowners wanting to be bought out, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said. The state pooled Blue Acres funding with FEMA hazard mitigation money last year to buy out 32 properties for $7.1 million, all but four of which were in North Jersey, Hajna said. In 2011, the state spent $20.5 million for 160 Blue Acres acquisitions, including 23 in the Fairfield Township community of Seabreeze.
However, other than the potential influx of money through the federal aid, the Blue Acres program will run out of funding this year. The state Legislature is in the process of trying to figure out a new mechanism to pay for both Green Acres and Blue Acres programs.
The hazard mitigation grants cover as much as 75 percent of the cost to buy properties out, but that program ultimately is decided by the state. The remaining 25 percent is paid by the state or local communities. Municipalities along the entire New Jersey shore are in the process of applying for these grants, which can provide money toward raising houses, rebuilding properties and, if the municipality approves, buying out properties that have repeatedly flooded.
At least 10 Pleasantville homeowners have explicitly told the city they are interested in having their houses bought out, said planning consultant Jim Rutala, who is managing the city’s FEMA hazard mitigation grant application. Hundreds of Brigantine homeowners have said they are interested in FEMA grants to raise their houses, but few barrier island residents have told officials they want their houses bought out, said Rutala, who also is managing the applications for Brigantine and Atlantic City.
The Christie administration has said several times that it plans to offer grants to homeowners trying to rebuild their houses to strict new advisory flood level standards, which were adopted Jan. 24. The new standards require the owners of properties where damage costs were at least 50 percent of the market value to rebuild to the new standards, something that could be financially impossible for many. The policy behind the grant programs is still being written, the governor’s office has said, and information is expected sometime this spring.
At the Jan. 24 news conference where Christie announced an emergency order to adopt FEMA advisory flood maps as the state rebuilding standard, the governor told reporters, “I think there are few places where we should not rebuild, if we decide to rebuild to the appropriate standards and we have dune systems that can provide appropriate protection.”
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