Some people would argue that owning a home anywhere on the coastline without flood insurance is reckless, like not having health insurance. I would tell you that it's a calculated risk.
I have a small home on a lagoon across Barnegat Bay from Long Beach Island in New Jersey. By now almost everyone knows that this is where Hurricane Sandy came ashore, cutting the island in pieces. The devastation was so bad that after eight days homeowners on the island have just been allows to cross the only bridge connecting the island to the mainland in order to measure their losses.
Sandy came ashore on a harvest moonlit night with two high tides. The first sent the Atlantic Ocean into the bay; the second pushed that water over our bulkheads and into our homes. Mine filled with 2 feet of water.
It's amazing what that amount of water can do. My outdoor shed floated away, replaced by someone else's wreck. My refrigerator ended up leaning against the wall. The water that remained inside my home saturated my furniture and popped up my laminate flooring.
Floored and uninsured
So why didn't I have flood insurance before this happened? The answer: My shore house on the back end of the lagoon has never flooded in the 50 years since it was built -- and it borders on the edge of the flood plain. Since I don't have a mortgage, there is no legal requirement for me to have flood insurance.
But the real reason is that the house itself is worth far less than the lagoon-front property itself and is furnished with mostly second-hand stuff.
In hindsight, I don't think that any New Jersey shore homeowner was prepared for a storm of this magnitude. Hurricane Irene passed over us last year with no damage whatsoever. And for me in particular the cost of maintaining flood insurance, $700 a year for a decent policy and $2,000 for a good one, was too high a price to pay for any possible loss.
I was able to gain access to my home the day after the flood. High winds and water-covered floors made my life miserable, but I managed to mop up and throw out everything that was wet.
I called my contractor and he immediately got to work. By that weekend, the pilot light was cleaned out and I had heat.
My electrician fixed my water heater and discovered that my outlets were working. Even the now upright refrigerator is humming along and the electrician says that I should continue to use it.
So while others were trying to reach their insurance agents, I was up and running again, still in need of some repairs. My rationale: A job funded by an insurance claim is guaranteed to cost more, and those with flood insurance tend to throw everything out, expecting that their insurance will cover it. And they wait around until that happens. Conversely, I moved quickly and saved everything I could.
I had some losses in the flood, but I also learned something. Expensive possessions don't belong in a home susceptible to taking on water.
So I'm not about to buy expensive carpeting or wood flooring. More second-hand furniture will replace what was ruined.
Realtors are telling me that with this latest disaster we can expect the cost of flood insurance to rise as much as 25 percent a year. And that wouldn't surprise me in light of what happened in Florida after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma blanketed the state with winds and water in 2005. The federal flood insurance program is already $18 billion in debt, and Hurricane Sandy will only add to that crushing burden. Those who buy flood insurance now will not only pay for past mistakes but for future storms.
It's inevitable that building or rebuilding on the coastline will become more expensive. One consequence: Middle-class people like me may no longer be able to afford their homes, and the Jersey shore, like other areas, will become another millionaires' row for those who can afford the high cost of building on stilts and the estimated $2,000 a year -- in addition to taxes and regular insurance -- for decent flood coverage.
So in the interim, I'll keep my little house on the shore and hope that, as Eliza Doolittle said, "'urricanes 'ardly 'appen."