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City Journal Summer 2006.
Summer 2006
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Stop Storm Dallying
Nicole Gelinas

Unprepared Long Island risks serious hurricane damage.

Long Islanders aren’t prepared for hurricanes—and they should be. True, Long Island isn’t New Orleans. While it juts out in the potential path of vicious Atlantic storms, chances are slim that one would deluge most of its 2.8 million residents with Katrina-style flooding, because the island’s “spine” is mostly along high ground, says National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Wiley.

Even so, parts of Long Island do resemble the Mississippi coast, where nearly 400,000 residents saw their homes razed or damaged by last year’s hurricane. Tens of thousands of eastern Long Islanders live in vulnerable coastal areas, where a major hurricane would trigger home-destroying storm surges. Even inland, such a storm would cause miles of wind damage, requiring billions of dollars in repairs and leaving many homes uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Sooner or later, a big storm will hit. The current generation of Long Islanders, notes Wiley, has grown up in a placid weather cycle, thanks to cool ocean temperatures. But the oceans have been warming now for several years, fueling more intense storms. The Category-3 hurricane that slammed into the island in 1938 preceded an earlier warming cycle; five storms, ranging from mild to moderate intensity, hit the island from the fifties through 1960. It’s only a matter of time before one finds the path again up the coast—and these days, due to erosion and building, the island now has fewer natural barriers, such as sand dunes, to shield it.

Given the island’s history and geography, coastal dwellers have no excuse for lack of preparation. But unprepared they are. Fewer than half of the nearly 40,000 residents of vulnerable Long Beach carry federal flood insurance, necessary to rebuild water-damaged homes after a storm. Middle-class Freeport, where 40,000 people live, has flood-insurance coverage of only 20 percent, while tony Southampton has a coverage rate of 16 percent, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The East End boasts lots of multimillion-dollar second homes, and many coastal residents have the resources to repair and rebuild. But many don’t: in coastal Long Beach, for instance, the average home is worth under $300,000.

New York State insurance commissioner Howard Mills has ranged all over Long Island recently, explaining to such homeowners what they must do, including checking insurance policies and, above all, urging them to buy the (inexpensive) federal flood insurance. But “there’s no indication that people are buying,” he tells me. Part of the complacency is human nature: people simply don’t think bad things will happen to them.

But there’s another reason: “It’s hard to convince [homeowners] that they need insurance when they see the government will bail them out.” The federal flood insurance itself, offering people coverage that the private market refuses to support, already encourages people to make unwise choices to live in vulnerable areas. But now, seeing what happened with Katrina, people will figure—correctly or incorrectly—that if a disaster is big enough, the feds will give them money anyway.

Mills, at least, deserves kudos for trying to emphasize that people are still responsible for themselves. And he also deserves credit for not attacking insurance companies, as some major insurers, citing heavily concentrated risk, jack up prices or pull back from offering even wind coverage on parts of Long Island. Mills simply notes that “the free market has dealt with the risk of catastrophe” in New York “very well” and that insurers, since they require homeowners to take elementary steps to protect their property, may actually reduce potential storm damage.

The federal flood insurance needs reform, Mills thinks, but until that happens, vulnerable Long Islanders should buy it and provide some protection for themselves.

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More by Nicole Gelinas:
Choosing Citi Bike
Too Soon for Answers in Harlem
West Side Story
More . . .
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