By Amy S. Rosenberg
With their backs up against the Brigantine seawall, two Jersey Shore congressmen advocated Monday for a less-drastic series of hikes to flood-insurance premiums than Congress mandated before Sandy.
Under the legislation, introduced by U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo and cosponsored by U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, the rate of the hikes would slow from 25 percent a year for four years to 12.5 percent over eight years, to help address the slow pace of rebuilding nearly six months after the destructive hurricane.
The announcement was made just a few blocks from where President Obama brought Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate to see the immediate aftermath of Sandy.
Five and a half months later, much of the rebuilding on the island has yet to occur, as flooded-out residents await final FEMA elevation maps and sluggish insurance payments. LoBiondo also predicted Monday that those final maps would be in line with what municipalities have argued for, with significantly scaled-back elevation requirements.
This new legislation, LoBiondo said, is designed not to reopen the original Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Law, which put the hikes in place in 2012.
Under that legislation, debated in Congress for five years, the hikes in premiums would eventually reach full-risk cost, thereby phasing out the taxpayer subsidy.
"Reopening the original legislation is likely to mean another debate," he said, "which could result in [the elimination] of the National Flood Insurance Program, which would be an unmitigated disaster."
The rate hikes are designed to bring flood-insurance premiums in line with actual costs, eliminating taxpayer subsidies. The reform was designed to keep the once-hemorrhaging NFIP solvent, and applies mainly to second-home owners and those with homes substantially damaged in a storm.
LoBiondo and Runyan were joined by Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther and Atlantic County Freeholder Frank Formica.
LoBiondo said he was unwilling to accept the tactic of pricing people out of their beach homes in the aftermath of the storm.
"We have people's personal lives that have been ripped apart. You can't just wipe out whole communities. You can't expect Brigantine or other barrier island communities to go away because someone far away doesn't want us to be here."
This affects mainly second and vacation homes, commercial properties, new sales of existing properties, homes substantially damaged or improved, and properties routinely flooded. Primary homes are not impacted by the legislation, though they, too, will see future increases depending on the final rate maps.
Regarding the new flood elevation maps, LoBiondo said FEMA's Fugate had "promised, guaranteed, and assured" him that FEMA would adjust its new flood elevation maps to be in agreement with the maps produced by the municipalities, which would more accurately reflect the vulnerable zones along the Shore.
These maps - which placed whole swaths of barrier islands in new Velocity zones that would require raising homes onto pilings - have stalled the rebuilding. Gov. Christie has directed that residents follow them in rebuilding, but FEMA said they would be changed.
Sarah Huff, a resident of nearby Cummings Place who attended the news conference, said: "I feel like it will take a lot more patience."
She and her daughter are back living in their home with her husband, Bob, rebuilding the ruined first floor and getting their lives back to normalcy while awaiting the final flood maps.
"More of the same," she said. "Our government is dragging its feet."
Also Monday, Republicans LoBiondo and Runyan, along with New Jersey Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, joined a bipartisan group of 32 lawmakers from regions affected by Sandy and urged House Speaker John Boehner to pass a tax-relief package for victims of the disaster.
Their proposed package would authorize deductions of uninsured losses, increase the limits on charitable-contribution deductions, and authorize loans from retirement accounts. Businesses would also get a series of tax breaks and credits, and municipalities could secure bonds to rebuild public infrastructure and docks and wharves.