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Rebuilding rules paralyze some shore-dwellers struggling with Superstorm Sandy

| Sunday, June 9, 2013, 5:00 p.m.

TOMS RIVER, N.J. — George Kasimos has almost finished repairing flood damage to his waterfront home, but his Superstorm Sandy nightmare is far from over.

Like thousands of others in the hardest-hit coastal stretches of New Jersey and New York, his life is in limbo as he waits to see if tough coastal rebuilding rules make it too expensive for him to stay.

That's because the federal government's newly released advisory flood maps have put his Toms River home in the most vulnerable area — the “velocity zone.” If that sticks, he'd have to jack his house up 14 feet on stilts at a cost of $150,000 or face up to $30,000 a year in flood insurance premiums.

“Everyone assumes when you say a ‘home on the water,' people have tons and tons of money, but that's not the case,” said Kasimos, whose Toms River home was filled with a foot and a half of water in the storm. “Most of these homeowners are middle class.”

Even as those in the most vulnerable coastal areas have struggled to recover from the storm, federal authorities have been issuing them a sobering warning: Raise your homes above the flood plain or face soaring flood insurance costs.

For many, it's an impossible choice. They can't afford to do either. And many unanswered questions have left residents paralyzed with indecision.

Until the flood maps are finalized in coming months by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, homeowners won't know for sure how high they'll have to raise their homes, or if they have to raise them.

Officials are urging people to elevate their houses because they are eligible for federal financial aid. About $350 million of New York City's and $600 million of New Jersey's Sandy relief funding has been allocated for the repair of single- and two-family homes, which could help defray the cost.

The process of house-raising is laborious and prohibitively expensive, especially for working-class people who are saddled with storm repair costs. Even a small cottage can cost $60,000 to elevate, while a sprawling multilevel home could run upwards of $250,000.

“You're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't,” said Karly Carozza, who is living with her parents while she and her husband decide when to repair their small ranch house in Brick Township, N.J. “It seems like waiting makes the most sense, but when people have nowhere to go, how long do you want them to wait?”

In Broad Channel in the New York City borough of Queens, where the air smells like fish and ramshackle bungalows are built along the docks, few people are raising their homes. The firefighters, police officers and auto mechanics who live on this marshy island simply can't afford it.

“The thing that scares me is that we've invested and worked on our houses our whole life,” said Frank Porcella, who took out a mortgage to pay for flooding damage to his bungalow. “They'll make this place and the area around it a ghost town.”

Several months before Sandy hit, Congress quietly passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, a bill that authorized skyrocketing premium increases for people in flood-prone communities.

It was a desperate attempt to keep the program financially solvent after it was nearly bankrupted by an onslaught of claims from Hurricane Katrina, which forced the federal government to borrow about $17 billion from the Treasury.

“When Biggert-Waters was passed in 2012, the big issue was this debt,” said Larry Larson, a senior policy adviser for the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “And the reality that the program could probably never pay it back.”

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