Protest photo

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s advice to coastal property owners to elevate their homes or face higher insurance premiums is a harbinger of more things likely to come.

Governor Chris Christie, pragmatic but resolute after months overseeing rebuilding efforts after Superstorm Sandy, has announced that residents in flood-prone areas of New Jersey must elevate their homes or face high insurance premiums under new rebuilding standards.

His guidance? New preliminary flood maps being released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will appreciably expand flood zones into new neighborhoods and industrial parks.

Christie’s was a forceful stance, especially coming from a fiscally conservative politician, but it could become the norm across the United States. FEMA is to continue to roll-out updated maps for the whole country through mid-2013 indicating new flood hazards. Many of the maps expand the areas newly falling into 10-and 100-year flood zones.

The broader flood zones mean that owners of many of those properties will likely be forced to buy flood insurance for the first time. For many already having flood insurance, higher premiums are likely.

FEMA’s flood maps include historical flooding as well as recent surge and storm flooding. They don’t include flood risks from projected future sea-level rise. On January 28, new FEMA flood maps for parts of New York City showed that 35,000 buildings and homes have been added to flood zones.

In its reporting on those new flood zone maps, The New York Times wrote that the FEMA action brought news “many New Yorkers were girding for after Hurricane Sandy sloshed away: More areas farther inland are expected to flood. Tidal surges will be more ferocious. And 35,000 more homes and businesses will be located in flood zones, which will almost certainly nudge up insurance rates and determine how some structures are rebuilt.”

The paper reported New York City’s deputy mayor for operations as saying that the new maps will not affect the city’s evacuation zone maps, but that they are predictors for new flood insurance rate maps. That official told the newspaper that the city’s building code will eventually take into account the new maps.

The Times’ Cara Buckley reported also that “far more structures are now in areas where flooding is expected to top three feet,” a level, she reported, that “could easily shove a structure off its foundation.”

She ended her report with this:

“This is going to be very rough on people,” said Chuck Reichenthal, district manager for Brooklyn’s Community Board 13, which includes Coney Island. “Insurance is going to zoom through the roof.”

Resiliency urged for ‘a lot of property at risk’

According to Margaret Davidson, acting director of NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, property owners and managers wanting to improve building resiliency for climate change are not only taking FEMA’s flood maps into consideration, they’re also consulting the National Climate Assessment’s sea-level rise projections.

“With 60 percent of the national economy on the coast and 50 percent of the people, you have a lot of property at risk,” Davidson said.

Because government money often helps those affected by flooding, many in the reinsurance industry and in coastal resources management have been advocating for better mapping and risk management. Under the new Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, those who don’t have flood insurance but are hit by a flood-event will get a one-time pass. If they want to rebuild, the owner is required to pay more actuarial rates for flood insurance.

Davidson says the key to better management on the coast involves combining both the FEMA advisory risks with the national assessment risks. “You would actually change the demography of the coast a lot. It would be a lot like it was before the flood insurance program. Before the early 70s, two kinds of people lived on the coast: people who couldn’t afford to live somewhere else and people who could afford to rebuild but didn’t build fancy stuff.”

States requiring insurers disclose climate response plans

In New York, Washington, and California, insurance companies are now required to disclose their climate change response plans. According to Sharlene Leurig of Ceres, insurers are considering modifying rates and payouts to address the increase in extreme weather events and damages resulting from rising sea levels. In 2011, extreme weather events cost the U.S. insurance industry $32 billion, she said. The damage caused by Superstorm Sandy is estimated to be between $40 billion to 50 billion in New York.

Leurig said that extreme weather events are increasing the number of businesses and homes unable to get insurance on the private market. In 2012, The Daily Climate reported that “insurance companies like Allstate, Nationwide, and State Farm have quietly stopped writing new policies in many zones near [the] shore.” As a result, state governments and taxpayers are gaining liability for wind storm risks as insurers’ former customers are absorbed into state-backed insurance groups. That shift adds to taxpayer exposures alongside the National Flood Insurance Program, which has had to borrow $17 billion from the U.S. government. [Editor’s Note: The previous two sentences were added on 1/31 to clarify the point made in the earlier now-deleted sentence.]

View larger image (Posted with permission from Ceres.)

Disincentivizing moves to most vulnerable places

Leurig said that businesses, communities, and those responsible for infrastructure should now be examining ways to build with climate resilience and disaster resistance in mind, which she says will help decrease their vulnerability and provide long-term savings for taxpayers, households, and insurers.

Joshua Saks, legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation, has been increasingly involved in issues involving flood mapping.

“From our perspective the best way to protect people is to use the best flood control money can buy — nature,” he said. “Any time you actually show people the risk and move them away from it, you are going to be protecting natural flood plains, wetlands, beaches, and so on. For us, mapping is very important because it shows the risk. Ideally if the market signal is right, it disincentivizes people from moving into these spots.”

Saks said flood insurance reforms passed in 2012 will establish a mapping advisory council that will examine what climate change is going to do to future storm intensity and frequency, both of which, he continued, affect flood plains. Researchers at Georgetown University’s Climate Center provide a useful background paper on the National Flood Insurance Plan and the 2012 “Reform Act.”)

Smarter Safer, something of a strange-bedfellows coalition involving organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, American Rivers, the American Conservative Union and SwissRe, is expected soon to issue a two-page framework guidance to help communities better prepare for climate resiliency.

Impacts of the revised FEMA flood zone maps are expected to ripple through many coastal communities as the agency releases new ones throughout the year.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...