Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) came to Toms River on Monday, seven years after superstorm Sandy laid waste to much of the Jersey Shore, to press his case for reform of the nation’s flood insurance program, accompanied by a family that just recently got to move back into their home.
“It was seven years of absolute hell we went through. I mean, we were angry all the time,” said homeowner Doug Quinn, not of the storm but of his battle with insurance companies and government red tape in getting his house rebuilt, despite the fact that he was fully covered.
“I’d rather take my money in the backyard and light it on fire, than pay a flood insurance premium, because I have no confidence,” he said. “And they’ve had seven years since this happened to do something. To clean up the system, to pay honest claims to get the people that have committed fraud out of the system, and they have not.”
Menendez, the state’s senior representative in the upper house of Congress, is sponsoring legislation that would both renew the nation’s lapsing flood insurance program and institute reforms designed to bolster its financial underpinnings and hold down rate increases, while easing the bureaucratic burden on people like Quinn who must rely on it.
“Without real reform, we can expect the same, exact problems we faced after superstorm Sandy when the next storm comes,” the Paramus Democrat said.
By one reckoning, Quinn and his family are among the fortunate. The massive storm wracked the state on Oct. 29, 2012, and even now, some 750 families are still awaiting completion of reconstruction under the state’s post-Sandy recovery program, even though the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy last year repurposed $50 million to aid in the effort. That’s 10% of the total of people who tapped into the system for help.
Recalibrating flood risks
Now, nearly 250,000 New Jersey residents who rely on the National Flood Insurance Program are facing rate hikes of up to 18% per year, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency recalibrates its flood-risk maps. The insurance program is currently authorized only through Nov. 21.
Menendez’s bill, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2019, which has the support of a handful of Republican co-sponsors from coastal states, would reauthorize the program for five years, while at the same time cap annual rate increases at 9% and limit the profits of private insurance companies. It would also grant FEMA new oversight powers to sanction contractors who commit fraud or abuse the system and make the claims and appeals process fairer and more transparent. A companion bill in the House has the support of the entire state delegation.
“We’re facing a perfect storm that could drown New Jersey families in higher flood insurance premiums, and risk sending the National Flood Insurance Program into a death spiral,” Menendez said.
The lawmaker had a receptive audience in Toms River on Monday.
“If our flood insurance rates triple or quadruple over the next few years, all this fighting we’ve done over the last seven years to get myself, Doug and other families home will be useless, because we will be forced out and our communities will crumble,” said Joe Mangino, co-founder of the New Jersey Organizing Project advocacy group and himself a Sandy victim.
“There are millions of New Jersey homeowners that are unprepared for future storms, and for the sea-level rise that we’re facing today,” said homeowner Alison Arne. “The truth is, is that 95% of the municipalities in New Jersey have filed for flood insurance claims. So this is not just a shore problem, or a coast problem — this is a state problem.”
Doug Quinn will never forget evacuating his Toms River home, with Sandy’s flood waters up to his knees. After seven years, he finally got back into his rebuilt home two months ago. But he says he can’t rest. He points to his neighbor’s house, sitting elevated but otherwise unrepaired.
“Every day we pull out of our house, and we see our neighbor over there, who may never get home,” he said. “So, it’s very important that we all focus on fixing this system, so what happens to Sandy victims, never happens to another American family.”