Old Saybrook — In the nearly 30 years Bob and Judy Raffalo have lived across the street from Knollwood Beach in Old Saybrook, not a single storm — not Gloria, not Irene, not Sandy — has resulted in a drop of water in their home.
In fact the Federal Emergency Management Agency has never even considered it a flood risk. It sits nearly 225 feet from Long Island Sound and some 15 feet higher, buttressed by a stone seawall built after the hurricane of 1938 and reinforced after Irene.
“Realistically we certainly will have to have a tsunami for water to get over this wall,” said Bob Raffalo, pointing down from where he stood atop it on a cold morning that featured eastbound storm clouds in the panoramic view.
But like thousands of other Connecticut shoreline property owners in more than two dozen cities and towns, Raffalo is about to find himself in a high-risk flood zone facing mandatory flood insurance and the potentially high price tag that comes with it.
It’s the result of new flood zone mapping FEMA is doing along the entire U.S. coastline. The new map for Middlesex County goes into effect Feb. 6; New Haven and Fairfield Counties, July 8; and New London County, Aug. 5. The latter three were delayed about a month after Sandy to make sure there were no major topographical changes. There weren’t.
While the new mapping removes some properties from flood zone classifications, the vast majority of the changes are properties either moving into a flood zone or moving up to a riskier one.
In Old Saybrook, some 700 are moving in and about 90 moving out. In neighboring Westbrook, about 950 properties are going from no flood zone into one; more than 325 are moving up a notch to a riskier zone; about 90 are moving down a notch; and about 225 are being taken out of a flood zone.
Surprising to many, the mapping has nothing to do with the recent storms.
‘A lot more data’
FEMA’s map modernization began in 2003, two years before Hurricane Katrina. This particular update was authorized for fiscal year 2009 to take advantage of improved technology that provides more accurate and detailed information about topography and elevation, and better analysis.
“Based on studying the effects of storms the last 15, 20 years, we have a much better understanding of storm surge and wave action and how they interact with land masses,” said David Mendelsohn, the outreach coordinator in FEMA’s New England region, who noted the current data is about 30 years old. “We have a lot more data. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has buoys all along coastlines to tell what kinds of surges come in. And we have computers that can handle it. In the old days, we used slide rules.”
The mapping also has nothing to do with the massive overhaul to the National Flood Insurance Program signed into law by President Obama last summer. It was designed to shore up the program’s finances. But when the two are combined, it could mean considerable, if not prohibitively costly, changes for the state’s shoreline property owners.
That’s because homes in flood zones, if they have any government-backed loan such as a mortgage or a home equity loan or line of credit, are required to have flood insurance, which of course is more expensive for homes in flood zones.
The flood insurance program changes also mean generally higher rates and steeper increases; plus beginning Jan. 1, they begin to eliminate many of the subsidies available for older homes.
“For some people it’s going to jump astronomically,” said Diane Ifkovic of the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection where she is the National Flood Insurance Program coordinator. “We read it, and I don’t know how some people are going to be able to afford these things.”
For Bob Raffalo, it’s mostly uncertainty at the moment. He has a home equity line of credit, so his bank told him he would be required to carry flood insurance. He purchased it a couple of weeks ago for a reasonable $458 a year because technically he’s not in a flood zone — yet.
Under old flood insurance rules, he could be grandfathered in at a non-flood zone rate even after the home moves into a flood zone in two months. But it’s not clear in the flood insurance overhaul legislation whether such grandfathering will continue.
“I think it’s going to triple,” he said of his current rate. And he worried openly that without grandfathering, he could end up like a friend who pays $5,000 a year for insurance.
“Five thousand a year for me, I wouldn’t live here,” he said. “I’ll move.”
Build better and save
One solution — especially useful for those facing rebuilding after Sandy or Irene — is to build to more stringent standards than the minimum FEMA requirements. This could result in significantly lower rates.
“It would probably be wise for residents to go to town hall, look at these maps, see if there are changes for their area and to make wise building changes if you are going to be rebuilding your home,” Ifkovic said. “Many people want to fight the map to some degree and build to the lower standard. In this case you’re not going to be doing yourself any service by doing that.”
Preliminary maps have been available for some time through town and city halls.
In Old Saybrook, officials have been proactive with elaborate online interactive mapping that shows owners exactly what the changes will be.
“We’ve taken the initiative and started a website early in the spring to get the word out to our residents,” said zoning enforcement officer Christina Costa. “It can be confusing, People don’t understand it. They’re not sure how it affects them.”
But many property owners contacted remained unaware of the changes. Some will simply find out the hard way. If they are newly required to have flood insurance and don’t buy it, their lender will do it and add it to their bills. They could also face fines.
Another problem officials point to is the many, many old seaside homes that have been in families for generations and have long since paid off mortgages, if they ever had them. A large portion of such homes, officials said, have never been insured for flood, and many remain built to old codes that make them far more vulnerable in storms.
Several owners said they had no intention of buying insurance, including many with shoreline homes that are non-primary residences, which are ineligible for disaster assistance. Such properties essentially are unprotected financially if a disaster were to occur.
Local, state and federal officials universally recommend flood insurance if a home is in a flood zone regardless of whether a homeowner is required to have it. And they recommend flood insurance even if a property is near a flood zone.
It’s advice Bill Sage took. On his block along the Oyster River in Old Saybrook, there are two houses between his and where the new flood zone will start. As a realtor who was already familiar with the flood zone situation, he knew that at 150 feet from the river and 350 yards from the Sound he was still at risk.
“A lot of the lawns and the streets close to our beach path or close to our path to Oyster River — they were all water,” Sage said pointing to nearby lawns that had flooded during Sandy and remained brown more than a month later.
And being outside the flood zone, even with just a two-house margin, the price was only $304.
“I just felt for the little money that it cost it was a great investment,” he said. “It’s insurance,” he emphasized. “I’m helping protect the equity in my house.”