LELAND — Dozens of homes in a neighborhood off Hazel’s Branch Road in Leland were under at least three feet of water after Hurricane Florence hit two weeks ago.
Most of these homes were outside the flood zone, with owners who had no flood insurance policy that say they were dissuaded from obtaining a policy when they tried to purchase one.
How did this happen? And how does a homeowner, with a flooded home and no flood insurance, hope to rebuild their life after the storm?
‘You don’t need that’
Barbara Murdock moved to Leland from New Jersey in 2016. She lived through flooding from Hurricane Floyd, where she said her town was flooded out.
“So that was one of my first questions,” Murdock said. “I said, ‘Do you have flood insurance?'”
At the time, she said her insurance agent told her, “You don’t need that, it’s not a flood zone.”
Indeed, Murdock’s home, on Crystal Stone Court, is located in “Zone X.” This zoning designation is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) lowest classification for flood hazard risk.
“They assured me I didn’t need flood insurance,” Murdock said. “When I talked to different neighbors and they all said the same thing, I think, ‘What kind of people are these?'”
She said an agent visited her home recently and told her she’d be eligible to receive funds to repair some shingles through her existing homeowners’ insurance policy. “More or less what she was saying was, ‘You’re not getting anything,'” Murdock said.
Even FEMA, her last fail-safe, is unlikely to pick up the entire tab to cover the damage her home endured. “FEMA told me, he says, ‘Look, ma’am, we’re not going to make you whole,'” she said.
Between mold and a street-wide sewage failure that resulted in wastewater inside flooded homes, Murdock’s home won’t be habitable without a significant capital investment. On a fixed income, she’s not sure where that money will come from.
“I’m almost 70, what am I going to do now?” she asked.
Without insurance, it’s up to FEMA
A few houses down, Mark Cerqueira, a Leland resident of nearly two years, said he was also denied flood insurance when he and his fiancee asked for it.
“These guys lied to us,” Cerqueira said. “They just said, you don’t need it, why are you going to pay extra for that when you don’t need it?”
A neighborhood of about 50 or 60 families, Cerqueira estimates only a handful owned flood insurance policies. “It’s just not right,” he said. “These insurance companies have coffers of billions of dollars, and they don’t want to pay.”
Without flood insurance, Cerqueira filed for disaster assistance through FEMA. He said a FEMA representative stopped by for a house visit and promptly left after smelling sewage that had seeped into the house’s walls.
“He walked in and he ran out in 20 seconds and he threw up in the front lawn,” Cerqueira. This was the only house visit FEMA made, he said, and resulted in “a lousy $21,000” check to cover all his damages.
Cerqueira’s contractor, Billy Lynch, is in the area working to gut and clean homes until they’re liveable again. An owner of a restoration remediation company based out of Philadelphia, Lynch has worked through three major hurricanes. “Flood insurance is a scam. Period,” Lynch said.
While he’s pricing his services, he knows families won’t likely receive the funds necessary to get the job done.
“You need every dollar from insurance to rebuild your house,” Lynch said. “It’s not right. If I’m using exact pricing out here, people aren’t going to have enough money.”
How flood maps are drawn
More than half of the lower-lying homes in Stoney Creek Plantation, after Hazelstone Lane, are not in FEMA’s most updated flood zone. About 28 homes are located in “Zone X” while about 25 are located in “Zone AE,” FEMA’s 100-year floodplain.
Randy Mundt, outreach coordinator for North Carolina Floodplain Mapping Program, said the most recent maps, adopted just last month, use data from 2014. “By federal regulation, we are only looking backwards,” he said. “We’re not showing what the future conditions will be, we’re not factoring climate change, sea level rise.”
For homeowners like those in Stoney Creek Plantation, right outside the flood zone, Mundt said FEMA’s maps don’t fully convey risk.
Still, Stoney Creek isn’t the only neighborhood that’s been hit by this apparent paradox; Homes along Chapel Way in Wilmington, which are outside of FEMA’s flood zone, and where no stormwater infrastructure is installed, are still flooded — even two weeks after the storm.
“It seems that a lot of the predictions are underrepresenting what the majority of scientists find to be the case,” he said.
When homeowners go to request flood insurance from their private insurance agents, they are steered to FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
Michal Brower, a State Farm spokesperson, said that while agents can make recommendations and facilitate the process, policies are purchased through NFIP, not private insurers.
“I guess you could look at the agent as someone who could help the customer get the policy,” Brower said. State Farm always recommends customers learn about specific needs from their agent, she said, who help homeowners decide what to purchase.
“In general, your homeowners’ insurance policy does cover, in general, damage from wind, such as a hurricane and things like that,” she said.
However, for people living on Crystal Stone Court, homeowners’ insurance won’t cut it.
The entire neighborhood is filled with ripped out walls, furniture, photographs and anything else that was submerged by the floodwater’s direct path.
Pointing to his front lawn, Herbert Coleman, a resident who’s been displaced by flood damage, said there’s nothing salvageable.
“In all that stuff, there’s a lot of stuff, memories,” Coleman said. “But, this is no time for sentiment. There’s no time for all that.”
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at email@example.com