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Forum News Group: South Queens Residents Pack St. Helen’s For Hurricane Sandy Town Hall

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Clasping the hands that have bailed out bucket after bucket of water from basements, that have had to throw out photos of parents and grandparents and children, that have been lent to neighbors and strangers alike, South Queens residents leaned forward in metal folding chairs dominating Father Dooley Hall in St. Helen’s Church on Sunday, and asked: Why, eight months after Hurricane Sandy, are we still struggling to rebuild our lives? Our homes? Our businesses?

Why, eight months after our lives changed forever – after our houses were destroyed, our basements filled with water, our roofs torn off – are we still not able to return home?

Why are we bracing for what could be unaffordable spikes in flood insurance rates? And why, after dutifully paying for insurance for decades, are companies dropping our coverage?

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn, Queens) addressed the crowd that packed into St. Helen’s for a town hall forum on Hurricane Sandy issues on Sunday.

The more than 120 South Queens residents who gathered for a town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn, Queens) and Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway) in Howard Beach asked questions that they said have kept them up far into the night – and the answers to which they said have been slow in the coming.

This, Jeffries and Goldfeder said, is why they held the forum, which included representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state Department of Financial Services and Neighborhood Revitalization – a city program aimed at addressing mold, and other water, issues in houses impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

“Eight months after Sandy, people are still struggling,” Goldfeder said.

Goldfeder, Jeffries and the other representatives fielded questions about financial assistance for rebuilding, the flood insurance maps that are currently being redrawn and what they mean for insurance rates, and federal legislation – called the Biggert-Waters Act – that aims to raise homeowners’ flood premium rates.

Jeffries, who represents a Congressional district that was redrawn last year to include Howard Beach and Ozone Park in an area that covers mostly Brooklyn, encouraged residents who are having trouble affording rebuilding their homes to register with a newly launched city program, called Build It Back, which has been authorized to use about $648 million in federal funding to help city residents affected by Hurricane Sandy repair, rebuild or be compensated for renovation work that was already completed.

“If you still need assistance, you should definitely register for Build It Back,” Jeffries said. “It’s important to remember it’s a grant program, not a loan program.”

Still, Jeffries noted that, as the program currently stands, residents who accepted Small Business Administration loans for repairs after the storm will not be eligible for Build It Back, the congressman said he is working with the city to allow individuals who took SBA loans to be eligible for the new program.

Those interested in registering should visit or call 311.

Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway) spoke to the more than 120 people who attended a Hurricane Sandy town hall meeting he helped to sponsor in Howard Beach on Sunday. Anna Gustafson/The Forum Newsgroup

Gregory Coulson, of FEMA, spoke about his agency redrawing the flood insurance maps – the final proposals of which are expected to be issued at the end of the summer. Those maps will be used by flood insurance companies to determine how much a homeowner’s insurance rates should be, based on the likelihood of flooding in their area – though the maps will not likely be implemented, and therefore impact rates, until about one and a half to two years from now. According to preliminary maps issued last month, FEMA moved most of Howard Beach from Zone X – a zone that does not force residents to purchase flood insurance – into Zone A – which is labeled as being more flood prone and which could mean residents may have to fork over money for flood insurance. Residents can view the proposed maps at

“But it’s important to note there’s a lot of discussion in Congress about grandfathered rates,” Jeffries said. “We’re trying to ensure that homeowners can get the benefit of those grandfathered rates – so that even if you’re changed from X to A, that won’t affect your premium rates.”

After the maps are issued at the end of the summer, Coulson said there will be a 90-day appeal period, during which time residents can file concerns about the documents.

The FEMA representative also stressed that the Biggert-Waters Act is still being analyzed by his agency and noted that the House of Representatives, in response to Biggert-Waters, has passed a bill mandating that FEMA not raise rates until there is an affordability study is completed. Bigger-Waters was approved by Congress in 2012 and phases out some subsidized insurance rates and allows for rate increases of 20 to 25 percent a year until properties reach actuarial status. While supporters of the legislation have said it was meant to make a debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program more fiscally stable, homeowners in Queens – and in coastal communities across the country – have said the new rates would force many from their homes because they would no longer be able to afford to live there.

“Twenty percent each year is a significant amount money that would be impossible for people to absorb,” Jeffries said. “We passed a bill to limit FEMA’s ability to put these rates into effect… Your concerns have been heard, and we’re doing all we can.”

The Senate has yet to vote on the bill.

The Congressman also addressed residents’ concerns about what the newly drawn maps would mean for house elevation. Jeffries said that residents drawn into Zone A – as much of Howard Beach has been – will not necessarily be required to elevate homes. A resident would be required to elevate their house suffered more than 50 percent damage in Hurricane Sandy. For example, if one’s house is worth $500,000 and it suffered more than $250,000 in damage, that homeowner would be required to elevate the house.

In response to residents saying their flood insurance companies had dropped them, Coulson said any city resident should be eligible for insurance and can visit to find an insurance agent.

Goldfeder noted that state lawmakers passed legislation that will prohibit insurance companies from refusing to cover the costs of damages, if a flood has occurred simultaneously or was a contributing factor in the covered event, as well as mandate that insurers spell out for policy holders what their coverage denies in given situations.

“In my home there was flooding, and the insurance said because there was a flood they couldn’t cover me for my roof,” Goldfeder said. “In Albany, we passed laws that aim to prevent this in the future…God forbid we have another storm, we have to make sure the insurance companies we pay exorbitant fees to are there when we need them.”

Jeanine Marco, a Howard Beach resident who attended the forum, said while the meeting was informative, she feels as though various government agencies, including FEMA, have turned their backs on residents in need.

“In my house, I live on the first floor and my parents live on the second, and the first floor was completely destroyed,” Marco said. “FEMA wouldn’t pay for my appliances because we had appliances in my parents’ unit. We had four feet of water on the first floor, and they won’t pay for what’s destroyed? I had a fish in my car. I have a 90-year-old grandmother whose flood insurance dropped her. It’s been really hard.”