On the night of September 1, Fred and Amber Urban were closing the register of the Schnitzel Haus in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, when they noticed the water streaming through the front doors. Rain poured in torrents outside the family-owned German pub. They had heard about Hurricane Ida—Amber noticed that sandbags had sold out in the Home Depot where she works—but had not worried. In their 14 years of running the restaurant in this residential, waterfront neighborhood located on the southwest part of Brooklyn, storms had barely affected them.
This time was different, as rainwater swept across the wooden floor, cascaded down the stairs, and inundated their basement. Fred recorded a video of two fridges half submerged and computer screens wrapped in plastic bags while he muttered “I can’t fix this.” Soon after he made those recordings, his two adult daughters called to say that their house, right around the corner, was also flooding.
The basement of Al Koura, a Lebanese restaurant right around the corner from the Schnitzel Haus, also flooded overnight. In a house five blocks north, Tommy and Billy Hondros stayed up all night battling the water that emerged from the toilet and sink of their cellar. Merieme Rafik, who lives ten minutes away, said she remembers feeling helpless as her husband, a certified plumber, explained to her and his clients phoning in with similar predicaments that nothing could be done until the rain subsided.
Except for the Hondros’ house, all these properties had been spared by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Back then, flooding resulted mainly from tidal surges and therefore stayed close to the shore. With Ida, however, inland floods engulfed parts of Bay Ridge because the pipes were not wide enough to drain the hurricane’s torrential rains. The Department of Environmental Protection, the branch of the city government responsible for water management, had devoted most of the Post-Sandy federal dollars to shoring up the coastline but had only announced plans to prevent inland floods in May this year. But these plans did not materialize in time for Hurricane Ida and now the affected Bay Ridge residents struggle to fund their repairs.
“We used to think flooding was a coastal thing–not anymore. It can happen all over the city,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said as he toured Queens a week after Ida.
“People have to be able to get affordable flood insurance,” he added.
“Barebones” flood insurance is sold separately
Former Mayor de Blasio was referring to the flood insurance sold by the federal government. In the United States, commercial insurance policies generally do not cover flooding caused by natural disasters. Private insurers retreated from this market after the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 nearly bankrupted them, according to a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Policy History. The public sector fills some of this gap with the National Flood Insurance Program operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And while private competition exists, it only accounts for r roughly 4% of all policies, according to a 2018 estimate by the Wharton Risk Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
Either way, flood insurance must be purchased separate from other types of property insurance. This came as a surprise to many New Yorkers, including Fred and Amber Urban, who learned that their insurance policies would not cover flood repairs only after Ida. Fred filed three different claims—one to his home insurance, one to the policy covering his business, and one to his restaurant building insurance—and all returned rejections.
Their ignorance is understandable. In New York City, the law requires only coastal dwellers with federally backed mortgages to purchase FEMA insurance. Property owners that do not fit that description usually do not know they can also buy it. Moreover, because FEMA relies on private brokers to sell and advertise the policies, its own outreach efforts are modest. “We can only do so much with the money we have,” explained Joe Cecil, a team lead at the FEMA flood insurance advocacy office, in a phone interview. “Our private agents in Texas and Florida advertise more aggressively because folks there know floods are coming. In New York, people don’t know.”
Yet, if the Urbans had owned FEMA’s flood insurance, many of their expenses still would not have been reimbursed. According to FEMA’s website, coverage excludes property kept in basements (or, in other words, the Urbans’ $15,000 in restaurant equipment and merchandise and $2,200 in house furniture) and does not reimburse financial losses caused by business interruptions (or the week that it took to clean the pub).
“FEMA’s coverage is barebones,” said Loretta Worters, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, a New York City-based industry association that exists “to improve public understanding of insurance – what it does and how it works.”
Just as the Urbans became aware of their vulnerability to floods, the price of FEMA insurance rose for most policyholders. Since October 1, the risk rating methodology has been revised for the first time since the program began in 1968, Worters explained in an email. Prices have risen for people living in areas with high risk of inland floods like those that afflicted many Bay Ridge residents. Still, Fred Urban has requested a quote and will consider buying a policy.
FEMA disaster aid is scant, hard to get, and has fine print
There is a glimmer of hope for uninsured people: a bucket of funds available through FEMA’s disaster relief. A week after Ida, President Joe Biden signed a disaster declaration that, among other programs, offered grants of up to $36,000 to affected homeowners in New York.
However, FEMA’s disaster relief tends to be less generous than FEMA’s insurance payouts. The grants intend to fund only “basic works to make the home habitable,” not to return dwellings to pre-storm condition, according to FEMA’s website.
Although FEMA data related to Hurricane Ida aid has not yet been released, the disaster aid following previous hurricane seasons has been scant. After the hurricane trio that swept through the south in 2017, individual housing assistance averaged only a few thousand, or less than one tenth of what average insurance holders received, according to a study of the Wharton Risk Center of the University of Pennsylvania. More than two thirds of applicants received no aid at all, partly because of the complexity of the application process.
Fred Urban failed to get any assistance to fund his restaurant repairs. First, he learned that grants targeted only homeowners while business owners qualified for subsidized loans. Then, FEMA declined his loan application because his restaurant did not make enough money last year. He blames this on the pandemic.
How is the city getting ready for the next hurricane season?
Although the floods in the heart of Bay Ridge caught residents by surprise, the city government knew they were in the cards. In May this year, de Blasio released the Stormwater Resiliency Plan, the first ever study of inland floods in the city, precisely because projections of a wetter New York are expected to place “a growing strain” on the city’s pipes, according to the announcement.
All the properties in Bay Ridge mentioned above were in areas that the maps in the study highlighted as likely to flood from episodes of “extreme floodwater.” But when Ida arrived, the Stormwater Resiliency Plan was still that: a plan. The first goal of using the maps to “inform the public about flood vulnerability from extreme rain” had not materialized.
The government has committed an investment of roughly $8 billion over ten years to expand the capacity of the city’s sewage system. Projects in some neighborhoods in Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn, are already underway, but not yet in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Moreover, the city has begun construction of “green infrastructure” with soil that can absorb excess rainfall.
But Hurricane Ida evidenced just how urgent the problem might be. In a report on climate preparation for extreme weather released almost a month after Ida, the mayor’s office estimated that the costs of upgrading the infrastructure to be $100 billion, more than ten times the current budget.
The topic of climate change and city infrastructure has come up during City Council meetings. Vincent Sapienza, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, said during a city council hearing on Ida, in September 2021, that the previous sewers need updating.
“Much of our infrastructure was designed and constructed decades ago, for what is clearly a different climate reality,” said Sapienza. “We need to continue making improvements to the City’s drainage infrastructure.”