In the coming weeks, formal discussions will begin between New York City and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the first redrawing of the city’s flood maps in three decades. The result of those negotiations will have immense implications – especially on flood-insurance rates – for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. With its 520 miles of coastline, New York has more residences – ranging from funky seaside bungalows to luxury condo towers – in high-risk flood zones than any other American city. It will be the job of the map drawers to determine which neighborhoods are high-risk, and which ones are not. Federal law requires anyone with a mortgage in the highest-risk areas to buy costly flood insurance.
“It’s a game of inches,” Elizabeth Malone, program manager of resiliency and insurance at Neighborhood Housing Services Brooklyn, told The New York Times. Since the stakes are so high, it’s also a game of hardball. In 2013 – the year after Hurricane Sandy inflicted $19 billion worth of damage on the city – FEMA proposed preliminary maps that would have doubled both the area of flood zones and the number of people inside them. The city, in an unusual move, successfully challenged the scientific assumptions underlying the new maps, claiming FEMA had inflated the flood-zone area by a third, unnecessarily putting 26,000 buildings and 170,000 people in higher-risk zones. The city argued that the maps would lead to an “affordability challenge.” FEMA agreed to reconsider, setting the table for the looming negotiations.
Though many worry that another Sandy-sized storm is inevitable, the redrawing of the flood maps will not be a speedy process. Homeowners should be prepared to be in limbo for years, according to Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s chief resilience officer.