There was no mincing of words: recovering from Sandy will be difficult, and a decision on federal flood insurance made months before the storm struck will make things even harder.
Brick residents got the low-down on the difficult decisions that loom in the future for many families following Sandy - brought on mainly by the impending flood insurance hurdle that could cripple already-strained finances for many - at a series of Sandy Information Fairs held at Brick Township High School Saturday morning.
Brick is the first town in New Jersey to offer such information sessions, said Mayor Stephen C. Acropolis.
The township's administration brought together local officials with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) for the program, which began with an overall presentation, then broke down into one-on-one sessions in classrooms.
The result was a packed Brick Township High School auditorium for four morning presentations.
Before the gloom and doom, there was a bright side: a strong community, the mayor said.
"We had roving bands of young people around after the storm, but they weren't looting houses, they were helping their friends and neighbors," said Acropolis.
Most of the good news stopped there, however.
"It is not going to be an easy road," Acropolis said, estimating his own flood insurance bill will rise to between $4,000 and $5,000 per year from $1,600 - even after he raises his house. "It's not going to be a short road, either."
Forget the fiscal cliff. Around here, it's the insurance cliff over which many residents think they will tumble.
Sandy or Not, It Was Coming
Though brought into the public discourse by Sandy, the law that brought the potential for flood insurance rates - required by those who have mortgages on homes in flood zones - to skyrocket to five-figure annual bills dates back to the summer.
Remember that debate on whether to extend Stafford student loan programs? That measure was attached to a transportation bill after a bipartisan compromise. But also attached to that bill - which was eventually signed into law by President Barack Obama - was the decision to end subsidies to the National Flood Insurance Program.
That means for residents who do not raise their homes to the elevation required under the base flood elevation standard for their lot, annual flood insurance rates may skyrocket to levels exceeding $20,000 even for the most modest of homes.
"I asked FEMA about this, and their answer was, 'there are going to be some very difficult decisions to make,'" said Acropolis.
Residents can view whether they are in a flood zone, and what their elevation requirement may be, online.
FEMA has released its advisory base flood elevation maps, which are expected to be adopted by the Brick council as rebuilding begins.
But for residents whose homes in flood zones are still standing - damaged or not - leaving them at ground level will not be an option unless they are willing to contend with the increased flood insurance premiums, which will be unaffordable for the vast majority of homeowners.
Residents in flood zones are divided into 'A' and 'V' zones. Both zones require homes to be raised, however those in 'V,' or "velocity" zones, must have special piling foundations installed as well. In other words, a home in a 'V' zone cannot simply be raised on cinderblocks.
FEMA decided to release its advisory maps to the public since many people are now facing the task of rebuilding after Sandy. But even if the storm had never hit New Jersey, the new maps - as well as the end of federal subsidies for flood insurance - would have come to fruition. In fact, specific storms such as Sandy are not necessarily taken into account when the maps are created, said Ryan Pietrimeli, of FEMA.
The new maps just being released were the result of an 18 month-long process.
"Hurricane Sandy itself wasn't actually included in the analysis we did to come up with the advisories," said Pietrimeli. "There were enough storm events similar to Sandy where we didn't have to re-do the analysis."
Sandy ranged from a 10-year storm to a 300-year storm depending on which town is being discussed, and the maps mainly come from hydrology and topography studies, Pietrimeli said.
A Catch 22 for Residents
The "tough decisions" FEMA representatives warned Acropolis about will doubtlessly hit home for many Brick families, as well as families throughout Ocean County.
"Our houses are not worth what they once were," said Acropolis.
If one's home was damaged beyond 50 percent, as calculated by the municipality, and the homeowner had flood insurance, he or she may qualify for what is known as an Increased Cost of Compliance, or ICC, grant.
The $30,000 grant is specifically aimed at allowing homeowners to raise their homes to comply with the new maps, which will be released in their final form this summer.
"It's probably not going to be enough to get you all the way there, but it's a start," said Pietrimeli.
Some houses, however, may not be able to be raised. And if they were not damaged to more than 50 percent of their improvement value during Sandy, they will not qualify for the ICC grant. In some cases, Acropolis said, raising a house may not be worth it, since homeowners could find themselves underwater financially between the cost of raising their home and their mortgage.
"Galveston, Texas lost 16 percent of its population," said Acropolis, after new flood maps were issued there. "That is going to be the case for some people who just don't have the money. It is not going to be an easy road."
"If your house is less than $150,000, it may not be save-able if you're in a 'V' zone."
"If you're on a slab, it really is not cost-effective for you to raise that house," Acropolis added. "You could do it, sure, but it would cost you $60,000 or $70,000 to raise a ranch."
The Small Business Administration is willing to lend homeowners whose homes were damaged $200,000 at a very low interest rate, a representative from that agency said.
Acropolis said the township will apply for hazard mitigation funds - grants distributed to communities by the federal government that can be turned over to residents in need. However that funding is two to three years away.
"The pot of funding that is available is going to be much smaller than the need to access that pot," said Pietrimeli.
Township officials said for homeowners who can raise their homes, zoning ordinances will be amended to compensate for the extra required height.
For now, there are no simple answers and no silver bullet solutions, officials agreed.
One thing for sure is that Brick will eventually look significantly different, both on the mainland as well as the barrier island.
"If anyone has been down to the Outer Banks or Corolla [N.C.], that is how Brick Township is going to look in five to 10 years," said Acropolis.