Going home still just a dream for many six months after Hurricane Sandy
As the sun rose the morning after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, Kelly Domitrowsky got her first glimpse of the destructive power of 18 inches of water.
A thin layer of brown slime coated whatever the water touched in her Mystic Islands home.
Bright orange walls in the living room had a knee-high line from the flood’s crest. Kitchen appliances had shorted out, and the house’s ductwork was filled with water.
Domitrowsky said she thought then, as she sat on her bed — the only dry place in the house — with her husband and daughter, that the family could fix the damage and be home by Christmas.
She was far too optimistic. Domitrowsky, like thousands of other New Jersey residents who have been displaced, doesn’t know when the family can return.
This grim recognition is part of the growing sense of uncertainty that so many along the shore face nearly six months after the storm. How long will it take for insurance settlements? Will the money be enough to replace corroded wiring, flood-wrecked heating systems, moldy walls and warped flooring? Can they afford to raise their houses if they are required by law or to meet looming federal flood insurance rules? How many friends and neighbors will return?
As homeowners face uncertainty, so too do municipalities. Towns are fighting to retain as much of their tax bases as possible and to keep their communities intact.
The state and federal governments already have adopted stringent new elevation standards for homes damaged in the storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to impose new rules in the coming months that could put the cost of flood insurance out of reach for those unable to prepare their homes for nature’s worst.
Homeowners along the shore now fear that this storm of regulation will do more damage to their way of life than the October storm ever did.
And politicians warn that the fallout could depopulate neighborhoods, bust budgets and leave residents and towns struggling with the repercussions for years.
“The future is going to be the result of probably hundreds of thousands of individual decisions,” said James Hughes, demographics and economics expert and dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
Each decision will be impacted by each family’s economic circumstances. But the fact is, few residents who suffered damage will be made whole from Sandy. Many residents are fighting with their insurance companies and fear settlements won’t cover the full cost of repairs. Then there are those who have no insurance.
While the federal and state governments will provide rebuilding assistance to some, officials warn it won’t be enough for a household to recover on its own.
now frozen in time
Domitrowsky, 42, stood in what had been the living room of the gutted bungalow-style house and reflected on Sandy’s extensive damage in Mystic Islands, a Little Egg Harbor Township neighborhood built mostly on filled wetlands in the 1960s and intended, at the time, for vacationers wanting their own slice of waterfront paradise.
The top half of the first floor is frozen in time, with Halloween decorations dangling from doorways and photographs and artwork hanging against the green bedroom walls. But below at about chest level, all that remains of the house is the frame. New insulation has been installed in a few of the outer walls, but the lower half throughout the house is a skeleton.
“It’s a lot we have to do and know — I don’t think either one of us was prepared,” Domitrowsky said of herself and her husband, Phillip, 41. He’s an electrician in Ventnor and has been doing much of the repair work on their house and his mother’s house between his paying jobs.
From an airplane, Mystic Islands at first seems like a densely clustered suburban neighborhood, with yards and decks surrounding the houses. But behind most houses is a lagoon, the waterway equivalent of a cul-de-sac. Before Sandy, it was hard to find a house without a slip and boat out back. During the storm, the lagoons that connect to Great Bay about a half-mile away rose to cover much of the neighborhood in up to 5 feet of water.
Most Mystic Islands houses were built as single-story bungalows on concrete slab foundations. As the popularity of living near the water grew over the years, so too did the trend of converting the houses to year-round homes. Bungalows were expanded or torn down, replaced with split-level houses or larger homes.
The proximity to the water lured homeowners, but the closeness — coupled with the lower building standards in many houses — is why Sandy left such a devastating mark.
Most houses in the neighborhood had flood damage. Some houses had water up to 5 feet deep. Other houses may have had just a few inches, but that was enough to destroy flooring, walls, wiring, kitchen appliances, heaters and belongings. Cars of those who remained during the storm died a slow death as the rising saltwater shorted the wiring.
The Domitrowskys bought their house on North Forecastle Drive in spring 2003 for $189,900. The couple moved to Mystic Islands because they loved the idea of living on the water in what felt like a real neighborhood, rather than a touristy beach community. Life was peaceful. They had a lawn with a bright swing set for Juliana, 5, and they had a dock where they could catch crabs and a boat they could take out on the water.
Last year, their property was assessed at $249,700.
Now, who knows?
Kelly Domitrowsky said the cost to rebuild is $99,000. She and Phil have decided to raise the house on piling, which is required due to new flood maps that put their house in the highest-risk velocity zone. Raising the house to 15 feet — 9 feet above where the first floor currently stands — will cost $35,000, but that doesn’t include the cost of driving piling, building a new entrance, cutting a new door into the side of the house and installing a new deck. They’ve already spent more than $43,000 of their own money on repairs, extra living expenses and to cut off all utilities, but they have no guarantee insurance will reimburse them.
Either way, when they move back in — the family is renting a relative’s house in the Villas section of Lower Township — the house won’t resemble what it looked like before Sandy.
While the couple could wait to see whether new flood maps released by FEMA later this summer remove their property from the velocity zone, Kelly said, the idea of extending their limbo is too upsetting. They have applied for permits and plan to raise the house by June. Kelly thinks they could be home by October, but they don’t know what construction delays could bring.
Walking through the short hallway to the bedrooms, Phillip and Kelly show with their hands on wall frame how high the water rose — 18 inches. They measured the night of the storm with a marker. Phil went to work as soon as he could to gut the moldy house. Wallboards and insulation were ripped out, corroded wiring removed, the couch, bed and other belongings brought to the curb, appliances hauled away. Only the hardwood floors remain, which Kelly said they will sand down and keep.
Now they wait to hear what contractors will be able to do. They need an engineer, an architect, a house lifter, a contractor, a mover, a plumber, an electrician and a surveyor. The process stood still between December and March because of insurance holdups, lack of contractor availability and questions over exactly what new building codes will be. In mid-March, their architect delivered the plans for the house and what it would look like 9 feet higher and on piling. They scheduled a house lifter to do the work.
While they wait, they are at risk from scammers and thieves making their way through the neighborhood. Police have warned of copper thefts, something that happened at Phillip’s mother’s house a mile away.
Juliana, who now comprehends loss in a way most kindergartners don’t, asks daily whether she will have her birthday party in June at home in Mystic Islands.
Kelly tells her they will celebrate in Villas, but there will be a big party when they finally go home.
History shows healing,
but communities change
This upheaval may seem new to the Jersey Shore, the most densely populated shoreline in the country, but it is typical following any major natural disaster. Insurance takes longer than expected to settle claims, and homeowners and businesses must decide whether to rebuild or reopen.
A total recovery after historic storms takes years. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew temporarily plunged South Florida’s economy further into recession. Unemployment spiked to nearly 12 percent, before decreasing due to recovery-related jobs, according a 2004 study by the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had a similar impact on lower- and middle-income residents in Louisiana and Mississippi. Thousands of residents have not rebuilt in coastal Mississippi, with the landscape dotted with empty lots where houses once stood. New Orleans is just now beginning the process of bulldozing vacant flooded homes in the lower Ninth Ward, which once was home to thousands of lower-income residents, who left the city immediately after the storm.
In the short term, the effect isn’t just on home and business owners. Shore towns’ municipal budgets have taken a major financial blow in the short and, potentially, long term due to the damage to the tax base. Tax assessors throughout the region are still calculating the exact loss, but estimates from the Department of Community Affairs put the damage to the state’s housing stock at $3.8 billion.
Coupled with the urgency to get people back in their houses and businesses reopened, mistakes will be made, said Randall Solomon, director of Sustainable Jersey, a nonprofit group focused on environmental sustainability. “There’s a certain amount of rebuilding that’s going to happen in the wrong place, and we’re going to end up paying for it to be constructed again.”
Oceanfront houses south of Long Beach Island were, for the most part, spared the worst of Sandy’s damage because of protective dune systems and stronger building codes.
But older houses in low- to moderate-income areas on or close to back bays, such as Mystic Islands, Ventnor Heights, parts of Atlantic City and the north end of Brigantine, did not fare as well, because they are more flood-prone. These are the houses where many of the region’s most heart-wrenching decisions will be made.
Future property values for those areas that weren’t damaged are likely to increase, while houses that were flooded will see values drop — if the structures are not raised — due to increased insurance costs, said Richard Perniciaro, director of Atlantic Cape Community College’s Center for Regional and Business Research.
That may mean that middle- and upper-middle class residents will be priced out of not just barrier island neighborhoods but also mainland waterfront areas, Perniciaro said.
“It’s going to really mean some of the shore communities that are not wealthy are going to become wealthier,” he said.
This could trigger changes not just in how many people live in shore towns but also in the community fabric as lower- and moderate-income residents may move away, Hughes said.
“We may well see great changes in those communities,” Hughes said. “At worst, they will be depopulated.”
For lower- and middle-income residents, especially renters, finding an affordable place to live could become a major challenge. Many basement apartments where lower-income residents lived in cities such as Atlantic City and Ventnor were flooded. In the future, landlords may no longer be able to get occupancy certificates for basement apartments, because the flood risk to life and property could become too high, said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit planning advocacy group.
Tough choices also will have to be made on how to floodproof older, more urbanized housing stock similar to many blocks in Atlantic City, Kasabach said.
“You aren’t going to be able to lift a row of brownstones. But they’re going to flood. What are you going to do?” he asked.
Shore dwellers facing
ever tougher decisions
Demand for barrier island property typically has been strong, even during the recession. But property values could plunge in the short term for all houses in flood zones, regardless of damage, as buyers hold off investing in an area recovering from disaster.
Research by Okmyung Bin and Craig E. Landry of East Carolina University found that property values in a North Carolina coastal flood zone plunged nearly 6 percent following Hurricane Fran in 1996 and nearly 9 percent after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. However, within six years, property values had regained the losses.
The researchers said in their June 2012 study that “the lack of a persistent effect suggests that buyers’ and sellers’ risk perceptions may change with the prevalence of hazard events and that homebuyers are unaware of flood risks and insurance requirements when bidding on properties.”
Whether Hurricane Sandy’s impact will be considered a wake-up call in the long term for the risks of living on the water is unclear. Storm-damaged properties and infrastructure can be rebuilt without review under a provision within the Coastal Area Facility Review Act. The code is unique among coastal states, which often require either a state environmental agency review of the property’s plans or, in some cases, outright forbid rebuilding, according to a review of laws by The Press of Atlantic City.
In Sandy’s wake, environmental advocates condemned the state Department of Environmental Protection for issuing a waiver allowing municipalities and other state agencies to rebuild infrastructure without an engineering review. The advocates argued that destroyed roads, bridges and boardwalks should instead be rebuilt to better withstand future storms and a rising sea level.
Future conditions are not considered, at least officially, by the state and FEMA when establishing flood rules. FEMA’s maps are based on historical flooding records. Stewart Farrell, a coastal sciences professor at Richard Stockton College, said developing maps to incorporate future sea-level rise may be impossible, because predictions are so varied.
Federal policies, however, are changing. The various federal programs doling out money through the $60.4 billion aid package approved by Congress in January require the state to ensure communities are rebuilt to withstand future storms. States were required to incorporate sea-level rise and climate change in planning if they receive money; however, New Jersey’s plan submitted to the federal government last month has little on the topic.
Christie adopted FEMA’s controversial advisory maps as the state rebuilding standard in January. Last month, the state formally adopted the new rule, which adopts updated FEMA flood maps each time new data are released. Christie warned insurance rates could skyrocket for properties that don’t meet or exceed the changes when new flood maps are approved in the next few months.
Many policy experts in the state considered this an unexpected first move toward increasing storm resiliency along the coast, but one that came with a brutal reality for many residents.
The advisory maps more than doubled the number of houses in the highest-risk velocity zone, which requires houses to be built on piling. Municipal officials and residents have protested loudly about that aspect, because the advisory maps do not include an engineering study that determines the actual velocity risk.
The maps also added about 33,000 houses in New Jersey to a flood zone, a state report shows.
Homeowners may have to choose between spending as much as $150,000 to move their house on to piling, bulldozing and starting over, paying extremely high flood insurance rates or simply going without insurance. While the state has proposed grants of as much as $150,000 to qualifying homeowners to rebuild their homes to meet the new standards, that money will be limited to up to 6,000 homeowners.
“Every time we go back into a hazardous place, without being respectful of the power of the ocean and the fact that storms are going to happen again, we put ourselves back at risk,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “We’re sort of setting ourselves up to face those same risks with the same consequences, or maybe even worse consequences, if we try to rebuild exactly as we have before.”
Federal flood insurance
and power of politics
Not all homeowners’ problems can be blamed on nature. Sandy struck just as the federal government was moving to shore up the finances of the deeply indebted National Flood Insurance Program and to ensure that those benefiting from the subsidized program were paying closer to the actual cost.
Four months before Sandy made landfall, Congress overwhelmingly passed a sweeping reform of the flood insurance program that set a rate increase for many policy holders of up to 25 percent a year for the next four years. Separate from the legislation, FEMA was set to roll out the first full update of New Jersey’s flood maps since the early 1980s, which on its own would have caused the rates for many to rise once those maps are finalized unless houses met the new standards.
“Nobody could anticipate this storm would hit when it did, and it was prior to the fund being stable on its own,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who voted for the bill.
LoBiondo is set to introduce legislation Monday to address the 25 percent rate increases nationally, spokesman Jason Galanes said.
Residents likely understand they need to pay more for flood insurance, because taxpayers who live outside flood zones complain that they shouldn’t have to subsidize the coastal risk, LoBiondo said. “But they can’t go from paying what they’re paying right now to paying $30,000 a year. That’s escaping from reality. You’re going to close down whole communities if that happens.”
How much value was wiped away by Sandy is still being calculated. Margate land use attorney John Scott Abbott said the loss in value isn’t just from the damage. Buyers are hesitant to invest in beach houses that may now need expensive upgrades to meet expected federal flood insurance standards.
“That’s the long-term harm to our area,” Abbott said. “It affects everyone, and our market (could) tank because they make flood insurance so expensive.”
Many homeowners, if they are allowed by regulations, will instead find ways to rebuild their houses as they were before the storm, said John Miller, of the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management. But as those houses go on the market in the future, he said, “flood insurance is going to play a bigger role in people’s decisions on what they can afford.”
Those homeowners who can’t afford to rebuild to the new guidelines and can’t afford future flood insurance rates will then be left with another quandary: How much money can they get for the land their house is on?
How this process will affect the ratable base remains unclear, but Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough, along with numerous other shore town officials, warns that the new FEMA zoning could effectively render the property valueless. After all, McCullough said, who will want to buy a house when they learn the flood insurance may cost $30,000 a year?
What is clear is that those charged with paying for the risk — the insurance companies and the federal flood insurance programs — ultimately will help dictate homeowners’ decisions to rebuild, sell or walk away.
“We have a lot of history and a strong cultural connection back to the ocean, back to the bays, but we have a choice in looking at the future in a nostalgic way, which means let’s go put it back exactly how it was,” Dillingham said. “Or we can go find ways that acknowledge some of the realities in life, that we have made mistakes in the past.”
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