With proposed cuts to the EPA, will there be more Sandys in Manhattan’s future?
By Madeleine Thompson
“People were living in our backyard in tents,” said Jeff Lydon, board secretary of the West Village Houses. “It looked like Katrina with piles of personal belongings, personal effects, sofas, photographs just piled up. It was terrible.” He was talking about Hurricane Sandy, which became the second-costliest storm of its kind when it made landfall in October 2012. Though most of the damage was to New Jersey and the outer boroughs, Lower Manhattan and the West Side are among those still recovering. Lydon’s residential co-op houses more than 1,000 people, and many of those whose apartments were flooded during Sandy had to pay for the repairs out of pocket.
In a recent study commissioned by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Resiliency and Recovery, the global nonprofit think tank RAND Corporation found that many New York City households could lose crucial flood insurance if Congress decides to phase out certain subsidies in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). “A considerable number of one- to four-family structures face substantial flood risk based on their elevation relative to water depth,” the report reads. Individual premiums could increase by $2,000 per year if the government lets the program expire at the end of September.
The mayor said he was proud to unveil the report as part of the city’s “multilayered resiliency program.” “If Congress doesn’t act, rising flood insurance rates will put a critical tool to build more resilient communities out of reach for too many New Yorkers,” de Blasio said in a statement. “In the meantime, we’re making strides in the fight to keep flood insurance affordable by working with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to revise New York’s floodplain maps.”
In a map of the 100-year floodplain, which highlights areas with a one percent annual chance of flooding, the Manhattan coastline shows significant danger below West 40th Street. East Harlem and parts of Yorkville, bordering the East River, are also at risk.
Asked how much of a difference affordable flood insurance would make, Lydon said “a lot.” Some of his neighbors, he said, didn’t find out that their insurance wouldn’t cover flooding from a storm until they filed a claim. “The definition of what is covered under a Sandy kind of event is very unclear in the policies,” he said, noting that West Village tenants, in a common practice for landlords, are required to have insurance. “[Policies] cover flooding from an apartment upstairs maybe if their toilet overflows, but from a major storm event, a lot of people’s policies didn’t cover it.”
It took the West Village Houses two years to completely renovate the damaged roughly 30 damaged apartments, and the board was only recently compensated by the city’s Build It Back program for about 70 percent of that cost. But the board isn’t stopping there. According to Lydon, the West Village Houses has also purchased a $600,000 AquaFence, which can be deployed if another major storm is predicted. The group also paid Brooklyn-based Local Office Landscape Architecture to devise a plan to avoid such catastrophes in the future. To implement the plan, however, would cost $10 million that the board doesn’t have.
Lyndon said the West Village Houses didn’t interact with federal agencies after Sandy and has gotten no financial help from them, but he expects that they will need it in the future. That may be more difficult than it was five years ago, as President Donald Trump’s administration last month began retracting some of the environmental protection commitments made by President Barack Obama. Trump’s proposed budget slashed funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, and he has ordered its director Scott Pruitt to begin rewriting Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to close hundreds of coal power plants and replace them with alternative energy plants. New York City is attempting to provide what it can with its $20 billion OneNY plan, which has completed multiple infrastructure projects to improve protection against climate change. But many of those rely in part on federal funding.
Council Member Corey Johnson, whose district encompasses Manhattan’s lower West Side, did not hold back in predicting the potential effects of Trump’s policies. “By rolling back climate protections, Trump is virtually guaranteeing that we’ll have more Sandys in the future, with greater frequency and severity,” he said in a statement. “That should outrage all of us.” Eventually, no amount of affordable flood insurance will suffice.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org