Profile: Sandy Storm Surge Turns Homeowner Into Unlikely Activist

Scott Gurian | August 14, 2013 | Profiles
George Kasimos advocates for superstorm victims faced with raising homes or shelling out for costly flood insurance

Credit: WHYY/Tracey Samuelson
George Kasimos
Name: George Kasimos

Age: 47

Who he is: Realtor and founder of Stop FEMA Now, an online group of coastal residents opposed to the new requirements to elevate their homes in accordance with the FEMA flood maps or else pay dramatically higher flood insurance premiums.

Hometown: Kasimos grew up in Clifton and Holmdel, but about seven years ago, he bought a house on a lagoon along the Barnegat Bay in Toms River. “I wanted to live on the water,” he says. “It was the American Dream.”

Sandy’s effect on him: His home took on a foot-and-a-half of water, so he had to gut the first floor. Before the flood waters had even completely receded, Kasimos says he had a dumpster in his driveway and was starting to do repairs. But a few months later, he found out that he and everyone in his neighborhood would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to raise their homes or face skyrocketing flood insurance bills.

He started calling around and attending public meetings, asking questions, but not getting a lot of clear answers and information about how to proceed with the rebuilding process. Frustrated, he asked his kids to help him create a Facebook group, mainly to share information with his neighbors, but it quickly grew to attract thousands of residents of the Jersey Shore, who all shared similar concerns. Today, as Kasimos continues his advocacy work, he says his home’s value has significantly diminished as a result of the storm, and half his neighborhood remains in disrepair.

How the storm changed him: Before Sandy, Kasimos says he rarely got involved in politics and hardly even voted. “I would never consider myself even close to being an activist or anything like that,” he says. Now, he estimates he spends four to five hours each day making phone calls to other organizers and elected officials, planning petition drives and rallies, shuttling from one speaking engagement to the next, and pressuring political leaders to change the laws. “This is not what I wanted to do or be,” he says. “I just wanted answers. And we have more questions, even today, than answers.”

His group’s main goals: In the months following Sandy, Stop FEMA Now campaigned for reductions in the elevation requirements of the FEMA flood maps, which they felt were unreasonable and unaffordable for many people living along the Shore. Some of the group’s concerns were mollified when FEMA released scaled-back revisions of its maps in June. Now Kasimos says they’re calling for the immediate construction of dunes to provide protection from future storms, as well as repeal or drastic reform of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which eliminates federal subsidies, making policyholders pay rates that reflect their actual risk.

How he feels about the new flood-insurance rates: Kasimos agrees that people who live in flood-prone areas should pay significantly more for flood insurance than those who do not, and that other taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill to subsidize them. But he thinks the new FEMA maps paint an unrealistic scenario, forcing many coastal residents to unnecessarily raise their homes or pay much higher premiums, even though Sandy was the first time they’ve experienced flooding in recent memory. “I don’t have a problem with my flood insurance going up ten or twenty percent,” he says, “But I have a problem with it going up three thousand percent.”

Long-term impact he thinks new insurance rates will have on the Jersey Shore: “A lot of folks don’t understand, our biggest fight is yet to come,” Kasimos says, predicting that the higher premiums could scare away potential homebuyers and devastate the housing market. “Our home values are going to drop, people are going to walk away from their homes, they’re not going to pay flood insurance. It’s going to spiral downhill,” he warns. He predicts that if home values and sale prices decrease, many people will file appeals to lower their taxes, which could spell trouble for already-struggling municipal budgets. Shore towns are currently receiving federal aid to close that gap, but the real problem, Kasimos says, is what will happen next year if that aid runs out. Property taxes will likely increase dramatically, he says, making the Jersey Shore a much more expensive place to live.
“People used to dream like me to live on the waterfront,” he says. “What’s going to happen is, until all this flood insurance and raising the homes, and all this stuff settles down, people are going to look down on investing on a home on the water.”