The Revolt Against FEMA

Sandy victims criticize FEMA flood maps, slow progress

Hurricane Sandy aftermath / AP
March 9, 2013

Some New Jersey hurricane victims are complaining that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is doing more harm than Superstorm Sandy did when it hit over four months ago and washed away their homes and businesses.

"FEMA has caused more damage to the shore than Sandy did," said George Kasimos, a flood victim from Toms River, N.J.

He is the founder of the growing grassroots group, Stop FEMA Now. The group feels FEMA is responsible for suffering and uncertainty for many Sandy victims who cannot start to rebuild.

FEMA issued Advisory Base Flood Elevation Maps as a provision of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which was signed by President Barack Obama last July. That act expands flood zones, doubles flood insurance premiums, and requires those in certain flood zones to elevate their homes.

Stop FEMA Now is calling on Congress to revise the Biggert-Waters Act and curb FEMA’s power.

"We need answers," Kasimos said.

He said residents need to know if raising their homes is a requirement and if the preliminary flood elevation maps will be changed.

Additionally, critics say, questions about appealing the flood designations and availability of flood mitigation grants need to be addressed quickly so Sandy victims can begin to rebuild.

FEMA will issue its revised maps in August.

However, residents do not feel they should have to wait another five months to start to rebuild and are questioning the preliminary issued flood maps.

"The township requested some type of interim interpretation specifically with respect to the velocity zone designations in advance of the issuance of the revised maps to assist our residents in making these important decisions; however, that is not possible according to FEMA," the Toms River website states.

Stop FEMA Now has grown from a few dozen members to thousands of members, according to Kasimos. It was formed less than two months ago. Its last meeting had to be shut down by the local police due to overcrowding.

Kasimos’ own home is on the mainland of Toms River and has now been designated by FEMA as in a Flood V zone, the highest-risk flood zone. But other homes, a block from the ocean and on the barrier island, have been designated in a Flood A zone, which is a lesser designation.

A view of the maps shows the designations.

"The flood maps are riddled with errors," Kasimos said.

Staney Depczek, a firefighter in Nutley, closed on his Toms River home three weeks before Sandy hit. He never even spent a night in the house, which he said his is now in Flood Zone V, but is far from the ocean.

"FEMA is not giving me answers," Depczek said. "Do you knock it down, do you walk away? I’m not going to pay $30,000 for flood insurance."

FEMA’s map of the Toms River area showed what the agency deems as higher risk flood areas.

"I would like to know, what is required of me," Depczek said. "Every week, I’m getting hit with something. It’s not easy. It’s very emotional and difficult to deal with. We need direction. "

Depczek pointed out that many businesses are still shuttered due to the storm, and people are now unemployed.

"People can’t go to work, can’t move on with their lives," he said.

"A lot of people are walking away from their homes," RE/MAX realtor Fiona Barone said, describing the waterfront in the area of Toms River as being dotted with mold-filled and destroyed homes.

She said they are knockdowns at this point.

She said some listings of waterfront homes have gone on the market and are now showing up as short sales.

"People who are on the bay and the lagoon are now in Flood V zone, and they never were before," she said. The elevation maps are "so sporadic."

"It’s like someone played pin the tail on the donkey to make up these flood maps," Barone said.

Barone organized a call-in to Democratic New Jersey Sens. Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg on March 5 to urge the senators to take action.

Additionally, both senators are now being criticized for their votes in favor of the Biggert-Waters Act.

"We need to know why Sen. Menendez and Sen. Lautenberg voted for the Biggert-Waters Act," Kasimos said. "They need to explain to us, why they did this?"

"The Biggert-Waters policies are handcuffing our state politicians from rebuilding," Kasimos said.

The yea vote by Menendez and Lautenberg improves the solvency for the National Flood Insurance Program at the expense of their New Jersey constituents. The act also requires FEMA to submit a repayment plan for its debt to the U.S. Treasury for storms prior to Sandy.

In other areas of New Jersey the same situation exists. Hoboken, located across the Hudson River from New York City, now finds 79 percent of its homes and business are in a designated flood zone. It is expected to have a substantial negative impact on the waterfront there, reports indicate.

Menendez and Lautenberg have sent letters to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate about the flood maps and its slow claims payment to flood victims. They also requested a meeting with Fugate.

It is unclear if the senators heard back from Fugate. The offices of Menendez and Lautenberg did not return a request for comment. FEMA also did not respond to a request for comment about Sandy victims and the flood elevation maps.