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Before the Next Storm

The weather is crazy – and getting crazier all the time. We all know that. In fact, with flood waters expected, the motto of some co-ops and condos is: be prepared.

A few years ago, the 96-unit One Kensington Gate installed a barrier called FloodBreak. A “passive” system, meaning that it requires no power system or human intervention, it’s a metal panel that lies flat at desired locations until floodwaters cause it to lift and lock in place, preventing water from getting past.

At 55 Monroe Boulevard, a 96-unit condo in Long Beach, the board is installing two flood doors at its garage, which was under water during Superstorm Sandy. “At two doors into the rear stairways of the garage, we’re putting flood doors that will stop water up to four feet,” says the condominium’s managing agent, John Wolf, president of Alexander Wolf & Company. “In the front of the building, we’re installing what are called drop-in panels” – manually installed by building workers during storm preparation – “which will slide into place and stop water from coming in through the front entrance.”

“Honestly, you don’t have to be a scientist to know that whether you call it climate change or global warming, the weather patterns have become much more intense,” says Michael Einsidler, a property manager at Einsidler Management, who, like many in his profession, deals with the practical, day-to-day effects of such weather. “We may be living with crazy weather patterns for a long time to come.”

In response to not only Superstorm Sandy and the tidal surges that flooded buildings from Long Beach to Herald Square, but also an unusually high number of heavy rainstorms and water-main breaks, co-ops and condos are working to mitigate the effects of flooding. Besides installing more effective flood barriers, many boards are making certain that they have proper flood insurance – and hiring private adjusters to fight on their side when making claims.

“I think you have to be proactive and do these things,” says I. Ira Litt, former co-op board president of One Kensington Gate, in Great Neck. He learned from repetitive flooding that you shouldn’t optimistically say that because you had a flood once, it won’t happen again. “If it happens once,” he says, “it’s too much.”

Barrier Islands

A number of companies make such flood barriers, which are also known as “flood doors,” “flood gates,” and “flood planks,” depending on a model’s specific style and use. PS Doors, for instance, has among its many custom-made models the simple Lift-Out Flood Barrier LO-510, an aluminum or stainless steel panel similar to that used by 55 Monroe Boulevard. A building’s staff can attach it in front of entryways while preparing for flooding and lift it out afterward to store until needed again.

Other flood barriers are permanent installations, ready to slide, swing, or vertically drop into place. Presray, for example, has among its custom models the heavy-duty FB44 Hinged Floodgate with Pneumatic Seals, made of carbon-steel or stainless-steel frames and aluminum panels. When floodwaters are a danger, the building staff close the gate, slide the locking bolts, and inflate the seals.

The vast majority of flood barriers have to be custom-designed for a particular site. Hydrodynamic and hydrostatic considerations – those relating to pressure exerted by water in movement and at rest, respectively – are paramount and complex: you can’t just bolt a big piece of metal to your building’s front door, because all the structural elements there – walls and foundation, chiefly – need to be able to resist water pressure in tandem. It’s not much good if the barrier simply diverts an oncoming surge from the front door to the front walls, or if the walls to which the barrier is bolted aren’t strong enough.

Some new constructions, such as the condominium going up at 560 West 24th Street in Manhattan, use a sealed “bathtub” foundation similar to the one that kept the Hudson River away from the World Trade Center. In the case of this new condo, that means a foundation of reinforced concrete rising 12 feet above ground level, resting on 87 piles attached by sockets into the bedrock, covered by a waterproofing membrane.

What can you do to protect your building? And how much could it cost?

A Deluge of Costs

“Everybody’s starting to consider flood mitigation, just like everyone is starting to consider [emergency] generators,” says property manager Einsidler. “But flood mitigation is not inexpensive by any means. Boards of directors budgeting for it see the numbers get big, and it scares people off – they table the matter and pray it doesn’t happen again.”

Because barriers have to be custom-designed, involving both engineering and manufacturing costs, as well as installation and maintenance, they aren’t cheap: costs ran to $130,000 at One Kensington Gate, and the two flood doors and barriers at 55 Monroe Boulevard were $70,000.

“They understand the value,” Wolf, the managing agent, says of 55 Monroe. “This is the kind of board that always looks ahead to benefits in the long run. They’re proactive and felt this was something that would help...with the resale prices.”

But that’s not always the case. “So many of my buildings are asking about flood mitigation [devices] but can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact of how much it costs,” Einsidler says. “You have to hire an engineer to do elevation studies. And you have to decide, ‘Well, we had a foot of water in our lobby, but what is the 500-year flood elevation?’” he says, referring to the predictive zones mapped out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “You don’t want mitigation for two feet, and the next flood is three feet. You need to hire engineers – professionals – to help you make these determinations.”

Former board president Litt says One Kensington Gate saw little choice. “We’ve had eight floods in less than 40 years,” he says, including three in the 5 years before the barrier was installed. “We’d tried sandbags,” he says of measures taken previously. But, “Waters still pushed open the garage door. It was very costly because many cars were destroyed, and we had to hire a service to pump out the water.” Residents also became wary of parking their cars there, causing the condo to lose thousands of dollars a month in parking space revenue.

Given buildings’ increasing need for flood mitigation, some companies are finding creative ways to finance the projects. The oil and natural gas provider Original Energy, for instance, offers low-interest loans for flood barriers to buildings that agree to buy natural gas for three to five years. The interest rate “depends on the financial stability of the building,” says Jim Slattery, senior vice president for sales and marketing for the company. Original’s rates are lower than a bank’s, he adds.

Federal Assistance

In the end, though, there’s a reason why they call this “flood mitigation” and not “floodproofing.” It’s difficult to completely prevent flood damage, even if it’s only to the landscaping outside. That’s where restoration services and insurance come in.

Most buildings, if they’re in a flood zone, are required to have flood coverage, says a spokesperson for FEMA, the agency responsible for flood issues. If you live in Zone A, the so-called “hundred-year floodplain,” for instance, you’re required to purchase and maintain flood insurance when your property has a federally backed loan, as most buildings do.

Because ordinary homeowner policies don’t cover flood damage, the United States Congress in 1968 created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). This provides flood insurance to property owners, and local governments in return commit to floodplain management and flood mitigation. Property owners can obtain the insurance directly from the federal government or through an insurance company that’s signed up to be an NFIP Direct Servicing Agent. Because it’s a federal program, policy coverages and premiums are the same all over the country.

This flood insurance covers only the structure itself, including common areas; it doesn’t pay for floodwater damage to individual condo or co-op owners’ personal belongings. However, condo or co-op owners can purchase a contents policy from NFIP. (Flood damage to vehicles is covered under the standard auto policy if a homeowner has purchased the optional comprehensive coverage, also known as “other than collision” coverage.)

Of course, having a policy is one thing. Collecting enough on it to afford repairs and restoration is another.

At the Alhambra Condominium, in Oceanside, Long Island, “we had a foot of water in every unit” after Sandy, the condo’s manager, John Wolf, says. “We hired our own adjuster to fight the insurance company.” Called “public adjusters,” these professionals work for a percentage of the insurance payout. Most charge about 10 percent, though property managers are sometimes successful in getting the adjusters down to 7 or 8 percent, depending on the size and number of claims the managers are able to give them. “There’s always an adjuster appointed by an insurance company, but you can hire your own public insurance adjuster who can negotiate more for a settlement,” advises Wolf.

Some firms will even do repairs upfront, taking insurance guarantees for payment at a later date. “It’s called a proceeds contract,” explains Robert Strongwater, president of the Strongwater Group, of Flushing, Queens. After Sandy damaged Yonkers’ PierPointe on the Hudson Condo, “We funded [the restoration], we did all the reconstruction on I think 11 apartments and the lobby, and all the electrical work. If we didn’t come in and do what we did, these people wouldn’t have been able to [have it done readily] since they didn’t have the money” until the insurance company paid out. Strongwater himself didn’t worry about getting a fair shake from the insurance company, he says. “After 50 years in the business, most of the companies know us and they work up fair numbers and we work up fair numbers.” He charges no interest for the advance funding.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue flood mitigation hinges on a host of concerns, including your building’s location and your neighborhood’s history of flooding. From the dwindling Arctic ice shelf to water in your lobby, global climate change is not only an inconvenient truth, but also a fact that may force budget-strapped boards to face a moment of reckoning.

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