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Climate change isn’t just a threat to our land and our health; it’s a threat to our wallets.
The Bronx has significantly less flood coverage than any other borough in NYC.
As the Federal Emergency Management Agency prepares to release new flood hazard zones and mandatory flood insurance maps this year, disparities in coverage are more visible than ever before, and rates for many are likely to rise.
For those who have invested in protecting against flood damage, the most popular flood insurance provider in the US is the government.
Flood insurance can be purchased through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, which offers flood insurance to homeowners, renters and business owners. Anyone can buy flood insurance through FEMA as long as their community participates in the national program.
Why should I buy flood insurance?
Moustafa Metwally is the general manager of the South Bronx location of ServPro, a nationwide water damage restoration chain. In September, he saw major flood impacts in the homes of clients from outside water leaking in and sewage back ups, costing hundreds and even thousands of dollars to fix.
“It’s supposed to be through insurance carriers,” said Metwally. “However, within our area, unfortunately, many homeowners are underinsured. They have the bare minimum of policies that in most cases don’t cover [the cost of the damage].”
For some clients, ServPro was able to work out payment plans, but they were unable to do the work at all for others. Untreated, Metwally said, the damage can lead to more long term issues like mold, costing even more for repairs and risking resident health.
The Bronx has seen an increased flood risk in recent years – an assessment by FEMA in 2020 predicted between one and two yearly hazardous flood events in the borough. A reassessment in 2023 borough that figure up to almost six, the most of any borough.
Most flood insurance policies are backed by the federal government. Properties in the FEMA-determined floodplain or “flood hazard” areas are more vulnerable to damage and more likely to be under a mandatory flood insurance policy. Flood insurance is mandatory in these Special Flood Hazard Areas when mortgages have federal backing, but otherwise, it can be confusing for homeowners whether these policies are required or recommended.
“I think everyone should get it, even if they don’t think they’re at high risk from floods,” said Andrew Rumbach, senior fellow and co-lead of the climate and communities program at the Urban Institute.
Government sponsored resources like FloodHelpNYC encourage New Yorkers to view their flood zone and find insurance based on their risk. These maps are based on those provided by FEMA, and will be updated when the new maps are released in early 2024.
Rumbach said like with all forms of insurance, it can be difficult to get people to sign up when they’re not required to. Chris Zimmerman, who oversees flood resiliency programs for Change in NYC Neighborhoods, which created FloodHelp, flood insurance is sometimes harder to pitch to homeowners.
“Resiliency is a bit more abstract, where it’s storm events, it’s infrastructure, it’s tidal flooding, it’s climate change,” said Zimmerman.
But flooding is the most common natural disaster nationally. NYC’s sea level has risen by about 12 inches since 1900, but is projected to jump to as much as 6.25 feet by 2100, according to the NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice. Rises in sea levels are creating greater storm surges that flood the coasts at higher frequencies.
Buying flood insurance is one way people can protect themselves from these realities of human-led climate change. Over 40% of National Flood Insurance Program claims come from outside the high-risk flood zones.
FEMA can deny adequate flood relief in the event of large-scale disasters. After the Hurricane Harvey flooding in Houston in 2017, uninsured homeowners received $4,500 on average from FEMA, while the average cost to repair property damage was close to $50,000. It also leaves communities in the lurch after smaller scale flooding that still causes expensive structural damage.
What are new flood maps going to look like?
We won’t know exactly what new flood maps will look like until they’re released, but Zimmerman said we can reasonably expect expanded risk areas.
“I think what we’re going to see in the new maps are more aggressive flood zone boundaries,” he said.
This would include reclassifying people who are now in more moderate risk zones into high or “AE” zones, and those who were previously not in the floodplain to have an increased risk. In order to understand what these maps might look like or for a more expansive understanding of potential risks, homeowners might look at FEMA’s advisory maps, which are forward looking and less conservative with their flooding estimates.
Despite the likelihood of a more aggressive flood map, there is a silver lining for the South Bronx: experts don’t believe the rates will rise significantly for the area upon release of the new maps.
“The good news is that for NFIP flood insurance, it’s a pretty simple conversation. It’s not like there’s a ton of variables in there,” said Rumbach from the Urban Institute.
However, if residents are worried that new maps will put them in a new flood zone that will increase their premiums, they would do well to buy before the release. FEMA “grandfathering” rules ensure that policies purchased before new map releases and zoning retain their cheaper rates.
I want to invest in flood insurance. What’s next?
Flood insurance can be purchased through a company underwritten by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program or by a private insurer.
“I think for your average person who wants protection against a flood disaster, NFIP is a really good first stop,” said Rumbach. “Especially if you’re intimidated by those other options and all the different exclusions.”
While NFIP’s rating system tries to ensure consistent pricing across its underwritten policies, Zimmerman says that unfortunately, this doesn’t play out in reality due to inconsistencies from companies and agents.
He recommends checking with multiple companies, at least three, in order to ensure you are getting the best, or at least an accurate, price for your flood risk.
You can find a list of insurance companies underwritten by the NFIP here.
I can’t afford flood insurance/I am a tenant. What can I do to protect myself?
For low income homeowners who can’t afford flood insurance, options are more limited. Zimmerman says his organization and others are advocating for a partial or fully subsidized flood insurance programs, but that there aren’t any available yet for New Yorkers.
Tenants are also in a difficult position – if their landlord doesn’t have flood insurance, tenants have little power to encourage them to invest in it and if damage is severe enough, this could leave them without a place to live. However, renters insurance, sometimes with a flood insurance add on, can protect their belongings in the event of damage (for homeowners, this would be “content insurance.”) Additionally, by using websites like FloodHelp to understand their flood risk, tenants can be more aware of their risk in the event of a storm surge and take necessary steps to ensure their personal safety.
Zimmerman also encourages community advocacy for policymakers to invest in infrastructure that will mitigate flood risks for all residents. He pointed to Jamaica Bay between Brooklyn and Queens, where he said community pressure led directly to implementation of resiliency structures like flood walls and marshlands.
“Folks advocating, showing up at their assembly, in council members’ offices and meetings and just pushing, pushing, pushing,” he said. “There is a response. It does lead to results. And that’s something that somebody can do without spending any money.”