The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

January 20, 2013

Superstorm challenges definition of basement in NJ

HOBOKEN, N.J. — Irene Sobolov believes the first floor of her house is just that. The federal government and her insurance company say it’s a basement.

The semantics, Sobolov has learned, are very expensive.

Sobolov and others whose lower-level apartments or businesses sustained water damage during Superstorm Sandy say the property they own is being classified as a basement, severely limiting what is covered under the National Flood Insurance Program.

“It’s the battle of the definitions,” said Sobolov, standing on concrete that a wood floor once covered. She says the damage to her home came when the sewer overflowed, sending a repellent brew of sewage, condoms and garbage water up through her toilet and drain. “No one told us about this basement thing.”

The basement classification has become a point of contention in Hoboken, a city of 50,000 across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Hoboken sustained major flooding when the Hudson jumped its banks and roared into the city during Superstorm Sandy, one of the strongest storms to ever hit the area. It is one of the densest cities in the country, and there are about 1,700 below-ground units that house people or businesses, according to Mayor Dawn Zimmer.

People whose homes or businesses were classified as a basement are eligible for grants that are part of the $50.7 billion Sandy aid package approved by the House of Representatives last week, a spokesman for Senator Frank Lautenberg said. It is unclear how much will be allocated or what the rules will be.

While there may be some relief coming, the classification is leading some to call for changes to the National Flood Insurance Program, saying the basement definition unfairly punishes people who own property in cities.

The flood insurance rules “do not reflect the reality” of urban living, Zimmer told Congress last month.

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