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Some Flood Victims Could Get Fast Relief Under a New Pilot Program

Lower-income households could see as much as $15,000 in emergency cash assistance after an extreme deluge.

March 9, 2023 Samantha Maldonado, The City
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A new pilot program aims to help New Yorkers from marginalized communities recover more quickly from flooding.

Run by the nonprofit groups Center for New York City Neighborhoods and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the program would provide up to $15,000 in emergency cash assistance to eligible low- and moderate-income homeowners following extreme, damaging rainfall.

The new program is designed, in part, to make up for lags in the payout process from private insurance or FEMA. After Hurricane Ida hit NYC in September 2021, for instance, it took weeks or longer for victims to receive any emergency funds, if they did at all. And when they did, the amount they got — about $2,500 on average — was often not enough to cover expenses, as THE CITY reported in 2021. Even filing a claim to FEMA or an insurance provider in the first place can be complicated, with extensive paperwork required to prove damage.

The pilot program application, on the other hand, requires more basic attestations instead — and households would receive payments within days of the disaster, according to the Center for NYC Neighborhoods. There are no limits on how households can use the money they receive.

“We’re thinking about this as an experimentation in a new way of providing emergency assistance to people that are currently left out of our disaster safety nets,” said Carolyn Kousky, associate vice president for economics and policy at EDF.

“We know that there are these gaps and that certain households really struggle in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and our current programs aren’t working.”

Typically, individuals purchase insurance if they can afford it. In this case, the Center for NYC Neighborhoods bought a yearlong financial product — akin to, but not technically, insurance — tied to a triggering event, like a heavy storm.

After the next disaster, qualified New Yorkers can apply for the funds.

In partnership with the data analytics company ICEYE, the insurance firm Swiss Re Corporate Solutions will look at the intensity of the flood caused by the event — rather than the financial loss itself — to settle claims.

The company will determine the severity of the event within days and release funds to the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, which will work with community-based organizations to send the money to households.

In theory, such a program could have supported homeowners who struggled to get back on their feet after the deluge from Hurricane Ida.

Neighbors embrace one another outside of the Hollis, Queens, home where multiple people died during Wednesday night’s flooding.
Neighbors embrace outside a Hollis home where multiple people drowned during Hurricane Ida. | Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The total amount of money available — and the number of households eligible — is based on where the flood went and the damage it caused. The amount of funds increases as the disaster worsens, ranging from $100,000 to $1.1 million.

The pilot program — which is run in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, disaster resilience organization SBP and reinsurance broker Guy Carpenter — is the first of its kind to use this model anywhere in the country, Kousky said.

Who’s Covered?

Homeowners who live in one- to four-unit homes and make at or below 165% of the city’s area median income — totaling about $220,000 for a family of four — are eligible to apply for the program, which will be available for the next flooding event.

Until the next flooding event occurs, it’s unclear which neighborhoods would benefit from the program, which targets places at high risk of rainfall-related floods that have large concentrations of low- to moderate-income homeowners.

New York City’s stormwater flood map shows risk of flooding during a “moderate event,” or a storm with two inches of rain in an hour, in neighborhoods including Brownsville, East Flatbush, Elmhurst, Jamaica and central Harlem.

After disasters, lower-income households — especially in communities of color — tend to suffer more and recover slower than wealthier residents, research shows. These families may have little or no savings, may be denied post-disaster loans and may forgo medical care or fall behind on bills in order to cover emergency needs, like food and shelter.

Flood insurance is especially costly in New York City, with average annual rates hovering above $1,000, compared to $700 nationally.

A program like this pilot project might have made a difference after Hurricane Ida, which in September 2021 dumped 3.15 inches of rain in Central Park in an hour. The remnants of the record-breaking storm brought severe inland flooding to New York City, killed 13 New Yorkers — most having drowned in basement apartments — and displaced hundreds of families.

“We’re starting to see those risks increase, and we’re coming to a better realization of how costly those are for households. That failure to be able to meet all those costs that are imposed can really lead to long-term financial harm for households,” Kousky said. “How can we, with the urgency of increasing climate disasters, start to make sure that people are getting the help they need?”

Rainstorms will likely become more frequent and more intense as a result of climate change, worsening the risk of flooding.

“As our city faces increasing flood risk from heavy rainfall and coastal storm surge, we need nimble tools aimed toward protecting the financial health and livelihood of New Yorkers,” Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Executive Director Kizzy Charles-Guzmán said in a statement.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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