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When Hurricane Sandy blew into East Coast a year ago, it caused billions of dollars of damage, mostly from flooding. In part, that's because the average sea level has risen over the past century, about a foot along the mid-Atlantic Coast. And that change made it easier for the storm to push the ocean onto the land. Scientists say we can expect more super storms, like Sandy, which means unless people leave their coastal homes they can expect more destruction in the future.
But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, convincing people not to live in potential flood zones is proving politically difficult.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Sandy was only a Category One hurricane when it hit the U.S. but coincidences made it freakish. Sandy struck the coastline at high tide. It hit directly at a 90-degree angle. And the storm covered an enormous area. All that happening at once is pretty unusual. But oceanographer William Sweet says there's one thing that will be part of every new Atlantic Coast storm.
WILLIAM SWEET: We look at it from sea level and say sea level is changing. And it is going to keep changing regardless of who or what is causing it. And their impacts are going to become more and more frequent and severe and we're going to have to deal with it.
JOYCE: Sweet and his colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agree with the majority of ocean scientists. If climate continues to warm, average sea level will continue to rise, as much as two feet by 2050. That's because a warmer ocean expands. Also, land-locked snow and ice will melt into the ocean. And a rising ocean means garden variety storms will do what big storms did in the past.
NOAA says the kind of storm you see once a century or so now could hit every few decades by 2050. And every few years if sea level rises as much as some computer models predict.
SWEET: Storms of lesser magnitude and storm surges that weren't as high as Sandy will have more and more importance, in terms of the way that we, you know, live our lives.
JOYCE: The way, for example, we insure property against flooding. The federal National Flood Insurance Program requires most businesses and homeowners in high-risk flood zones to buy flood insurance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now remapping those flood zones. And the new zones are a lot bigger.
Robert Moore, who studies flood policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says New York City formerly had about 35,000 buildings sitting in flood zones. Now that's doubled.
ROBERT MOORE: The new maps that were made in the wake of Hurricane Sandy show a much larger floodplain that encompasses about 67,000 buildings.
JOYCE: FEMA, in fact, expects a 45 percent increase in flood risk areas by the end of the century. So, more people are going to have to buy flood insurance and insurance will cost more. That's because of a 2012 law that radically changes the flood insurance program. The law eliminates subsidies to policyholders that kept rates artificially low for decades.
Moore says in some places, one-third of policyholders got subsidies.
MOORE: We've been subsidizing people to live in some of the riskiest parts of the country. And that is one of the reasons why the National Flood Insurance Program is so deeply in debt.
JOYCE: In debt to the tune of about $25 billion.
Charging more for flood insurance would help shore up that loss but it's also a bitter pill for many.
MOORE: There's a lot of push-back. People obviously have a little bit of sticker shock.
JOYCE: So much so that now the new law is already in jeopardy. This week, members of Congress are proposing a bill to delay the insurance reforms for as much as four years. Two other bills to soften the cost increase are in play as well. Democrat New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez called FEMA's new flood maps and insurance rates a manmade disaster.
SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: Many homeowners will be forced to pay premiums that are several times higher than the current rate they pay.
JOYCE: Now, raising premiums was, in fact, what last year's law was expected to do. So, apparently, the new debate will be: How do politicians bail out FEMA without raising rates for the people who vote them in or out of office?
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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