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Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast six months ago Monday. And as with other natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was there from day one, finding people temporary shelter and later supporting rebuilding efforts. But FEMA has a lesser-known role. It oversees the creation of maps, which model the risk of flooding in different areas during storms. These maps are also used to set building codes and flood insurance rates, and they are contentious.
Our coverage starts in New Jersey with reporter Tracey Samuelson from member station WHYY.
TRACY SAMUELSON, BYLINE: George Kasimos is sitting in a make-shift office in his garage FEMA-ing. Not fuming, though maybe he's doing some of that too. FEMA-ing is what he calls the research and organizing he's does with a group he started called Stop FEMA Now.
GEORGE KASIMOS: FEMA is flying by the seat of their pants. And we have to rebuild our homes with their seat of their pants rules and regulations.
SAMUELSON: The first floor of his house in Toms River flooded during the storm and he had to gut it. He's doing some painting.
KASIMOS: Everything probably wet, so just - yeah.
SAMUELSON: He says the construction could have been done in January but he stopped work for a few months when FEMA released a new version of its flood maps, which are used to set insurance rates.
KASIMOS: I thought I was on that show "Punk'd," to be honest. I just didn't believe it.
SAMUELSON: Kasimos figured if he doesn't raise his home four feet, his flood insurance would go from a thousand dollars per year to $15,000 per year because on these new maps, Kasimos is now in what's called a Velocity Zone, a V-zone, meaning in a 100-year storm, FEMA modeling shows waves three feet or higher would hit his home.
He's supposed to elevate and put his house on pilings, which means lifting it off its foundation, moving it out of the way, and plunging big telephone poles into the ground that his house would then sit on top of. But Kasimos lives on a lagoon, not the open ocean. So he thinks he should be an A-zone, at risk for flooding but not wave damage. In an A-zone, he'd still elevate, but he could skip the costly pilings.
KASIMOS: In an A-zone, it cost about $50,000 for an average home. And for a V-zone, it's about $150,000. That is a $100,000 price difference in raising our home.
SAMUELSON: Kasimos took his plight to Facebook and now has over 3500 Likes for his group. They've started meeting near weekly, usually opening with something like this.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The decision to adopt these maps was premature and requires additional consideration. We want to simply stop FEMA now.
BILL MCDONNELL: We do anticipate the V-zone in certain areas becoming smaller. It is an advisory product. It's just out there for informational purposes. And then the state of New Jersey adopted it as a land use policy, so that if people were going to rebuild, they did have to rebuild to that standard.
SAMUELSON: So the advisory maps basically became building code for repairing properties that have substantial storm damage. The state didn't want people to rebuild based on old data and have lift their houses higher later. FEMA says the maps will change but the number of people affected and the requirements for rebuilding will only decrease when the maps are finalized.
That leaves Jersey Shore homeowners like Kasimos to decide whether to do work on their homes now that they may find out later wasn't actually needed. Kasimos has decided rebuild without elevating for now. He's trying to fix up only what he has to get back to normal. But even then, he's still doing work he'll have to tear up when he eventually elevates.
KASIMOS: It's going to have to take apart the deck, my stairs and siding and things like that - absolutely.
SAMUELSON: FEMA says it understands the urgency and is moving as fast as it can. It expects to start releasing a new version of the maps county by county, perhaps as early as June.
For NPR News, I'm Tracey Samuelson.
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