When people ask me where I’m from and I tell them, “the Jersey Shore,” the first thing they usually ask is how much damage did I get from Hurricane Sandy. I tell them about how I lost some trees and how we were without power for a while, but overall, we got by. Since I live three miles from the beach and away from any inland waterways, our damage was, all things considered, minimal. Some of my neighbors weren’t so lucky, as huge trees fell and smashed through their houses—but for the most part, my neighborhood did all right.
The next question I usually get is how the rebuilding is going. I tell them that it is uneven. The damage done to the shore was more severe in some places than in others, and the rebuilding efforts have been more aggressive and better coordinated in some places than in others. In my area, some towns look great; while their boardwalks were destroyed by Sandy, beautiful new ones now stand in their place. Just a few miles away, other towns still look very much as they did after Sandy made landfall; yards are covered with sand, businesses remain boarded up, debris lies uncollected.
That’s when I usually get a comment about how they hear a lot of places aren’t rebuilding because the insurance companies are getting in the way. The notion here is that insurers are requiring property owners to install measures to protect them from future storm surges and wind damage, or else their claim money won’t go through.
It’s the kind of comment that often is couched in a tone that suggests begrudging sympathy with insurers trying to impose some kind of coastal risk management on properties that will, one day, face a similar claims event. But what these comments also convey is an all-too- familiar tone of skepticism towards an insurance industry assumed to be up to no good.
The truth is, in a lot of cases things are far more complicated than that. Indeed, there are coastal properties that are facing certain kinds of reconstruction requirements imposed by their insurance companies. But that may not be the only thing holding up reconstruction. Mandated reconstruction might make a structure too tall, or put it too close to the edge of its property. Sometimes, as people rebuild, they decide to make that big addition they always talked about or otherwise seriously redesign the building, perhaps even into something completely different from what stood there previously.
When builders submit their permits and what they want to construct doesn’t jive with what the local law permits, then they need to apply for a variance. Variances are an exception to the law based on the fact that for whatever reason, that nonstandard construction won’t cause the neighbors and the public any major headaches.
The variance process requires the hiring of attorneys and expert witnesses such as architects, engineers and urban land use planners. Often, people oppose the application for reasons both valid and spurious. It all adds up to an expensive trip through the legal system that can take months to resolve, especially now that there are Sandy-related construction projects in the queue. And in a lot of cases, those months might end up with a declined application—which means the property owner has to return to Square One and figure out how they are going to rebuild.
On the Jersey Shore, this is a big reason why the rebuilding is taking so long in places. Is insurance a factor? Sure, it is. Is it the only factor? No, it’s not. Is this yet another example of how, when folks don’t quite understand a complicated situation, they take a default position of it must somehow be the insurance industry’s fault? Yes. Yes, it is. And that’s a real shame. Because in most of these cases, if it were not for the insurers, there would be no rebuilding at all.