For residents of barrier islands, low pressure can mean high anxiety.
“Every time it rains hard now, they’re afraid,” Melissa Warren, 35, of Sea Isle City, said of her children, Cadence, 10, and Ethan, 6.
The family had to climb through windows twice in the last three years to escape flood waters entering their ground-floor apartment on 44th Street.
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Their home is among the 2,302 defined as repetitive-loss properties in Cape May County, which has the greatest number of such buildings in the state.
Included in that number are 249 severe repetitive-loss properties, the third-highest number in the state. That distinction means an automatic 25 percent increase in flood insurance premiums, which could double the cost of a policy in as little as three years.
And that, experts said, has the potential to force people, many of them year-round residents and seniors on fixed incomes, out of frequently damaged homes in a county where 15 of 16 municipalities have direct access to water. That could lead to developers purchasing and demolishing older buildings in the wake of destruction from the Jan. 23-24 nor’easter, experts said.
“At what point does a person say, ‘I can’t afford to live in my home anymore?’” asked Tom Heist IV, president of Thomas H. Heist Insurance Agency in Ocean City. “It’s the year-round people who live in houses on the ground who can’t afford to live here. It’s their homes that are sold and torn down and replaced with second homes. It affects the fabric of the community.”
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No doubt Winter Storm Jonas, which caused $72 million in damages in Cape May County, will push some properties into the repetitive-loss or severe repetitive-loss categories, as hundreds of older homes with low assessment values still exist on the barrier islands.
“A lot of these homes have $30,000 or $50,000 improvement values,” Heist said. “All of the value is in the land. It’s very easy to become a repetitive-loss property.”
Federal regulations that kicked in last year made flood insurance policies more costly with rate increases and new surcharges for all customers. Policies on repetitive-loss properties are the costliest of all.
As of 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Ocean City had the second-highest number of repetitive-loss properties in New Jersey with 541.
Ocean City Tax Assessor Joe Elliott said assessed values for older, functionally obsolete, 800-square-foot homes on the island are as low as $20,000. And while the city, the most heavily damaged in the county by Sandy, reduced assessments on 539 properties after the 2012 hurricane, no one in Ocean City has requested a reduced assessment due to flooding from Jonas.
Neither has anyone in West Wildwood, where Tax Assessor Joe Gallagher estimates 500 of the 800 residential units had “some water” from Jonas, which brought historic flood tides to the tiny borough. Deputy OEM Coordinator Christopher Ridings said in the immediate aftermath of the storm his office estimated 189 properties had at least 6 inches of water and another 250 properties sustained damage from Jonas.
“Every time I turn on the Weather Channel and see a low-pressure system coming, my nerves are on edge,” said Dan Nickels, 44, of Ocean City, who said his home has been breached by flood waters seven times since Hurricane Sandy.
He said his files of paperwork from Sandy are gathering dust as he grows impatient waiting for assistance to mitigate his duplex in the 100 block of Seventh Street.
Warren, whose family was displaced by Sandy in 2012 and again by Jonas in January, is looking to move from the apartment located beneath her mother-in-law’s residence. She said her family, which also includes her husband and two cats, cannot afford to lose all their possessions a third time. As it was, most of their furniture was donated to them after Sandy, she said.
“We’re looking for a place to live, a permanent residence,” she said. “Our clothes are all in boxes. I definitely don’t want to live in anything basement-level anymore.”