Dealers who have lived through disasters in communities across the United States say it usually takes six months before they see rebuilding activity pick up significantly. But for LBM operations in areas ravaged last October by Superstorm Sandy, the wait will be longer.
Sandy’s size and the unusual place where it came ashore and caused damage—New Jersey and New York—have combined to keep this recovery in its infancy, even though seven months have passed since those areas got pounded. Homeowners, dealers, builders, remodelers, architects, and elected officials all are waiting, speculating, and complaining as insurers write checks and—even more important—federal and local rule-setters produce new flood insurance maps and debate how to build safely on a beach.
“Those who thought there would be a sudden windfall of activity this year might be disappointed,” says Matt Kuiken, vice president of operations at Kuiken Brothers, a dealer in Fair Lawn, N.J., with lots of business on the Jersey Shore.
Through late April, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says more than $6.6 billion in disaster assistance has been provided to individuals and families. The National Flood Insurance Program has paid nearly $3.4 billion in claims to policy holders in New York State, FEMA added.
But those outlays pale in comparison to the estimated $28.2 billion worth of insured losses that Sandy wrought, including damage to 650,000 homes and businesses. And those billions don’t reflect what it actually will cost to rebuild houses as they were, much less as new codes might require them to become.
“Most insurance companies have been seemingly proactive to get claims paid,” Matt Kuiken says. “However, the funds being allocated are generally insufficient to cover what’s going to be required under new code. This is causing many people to sit tight, and weigh their options–and could very well have an adverse effect on construction.”
Indeed, press reports from Montauk to Cape May indicate sluggish moves to rebuild in large part because FEMA and code-writers have made it difficult to know what construction techniques should be permitted in neighborhoods where another Sandy could strike. The stories are laden with quotes from homeowners outraged that updated—but provisional—FEMA flood maps were marking them as living in higher-risk areas. A Facebook page called “Stop FEMA Now” has nearly 3,800 likes, and press reports talk about people in “flood map limbo.”
“Homeowners are feeling stuck and frustrated, not knowing if or how they should rebuild,” Philadelphia radio station WHYY reported. “Much of that confusion comes from flood maps that were actually meant to help answer some of the very questions they’ve wound up complicating.”
On Staten Island, these so-called “advisory” FEMA maps raised a ruckus when they expanded the number of homes located in the “V” (for velocity) Zone. People in those areas have to fill in basements and build with breakaway walls—to withstand rushing waves as well as flood-level waters—if they hope to buy flood insurance in the future.
But in late April, the Staten Island Advance quoted local officials as saying they believe final FEMA maps expected this summer will reduce significantly the number of homes. That should make people happy, right? For those who waited, it will. But others have already started rebuilding under the assumption they’d be in Zone V. If they get reclassified, they will find that they didn’t need to spend nearly as much on flood mitigation.
Often, foundation work hasn’t even begun yet. New York City estimates it would cost about $10 billion raise every residential structure in the city’s current advisory flood maps. Still, it appears the shore’s allure will trump fear of another storm. New York State offered to buy homes in low-lying areas so residents could move. So far, fewer than 15% have taken up the offer.