Fewer than half of the 95,500 buildings damaged in Nassau and Suffolk counties by superstorm Sandy were covered by flood insurance, federal statistics show, leaving thousands of Long Islanders dependent on government aid and their own resources as they struggle to rebuild.
Those roughly 52,400 uninsured homes, businesses and other structures probably will have sweeping implications for the recovery of storm-ravaged neighborhoods along the South Shore. Without insurance settlements to help rebuild, many owners are apt to deplete their savings, drive up debts and postpone repairs. Others may simply walk away, economists said.
"Some of those houses will not be rebuilt, because people will not have the resources," said Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group.
While homeowners without insurance are eligible for low-interest loans and up to $31,900 in federal aid, the cost of rebuilding in waterfront towns could be significantly higher, topping $100,000 for badly flooded homes, federal officials said.
The result "could be catastrophic" for those without insurance, said Timothy Crowley, a regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which supplied Newsday with the data.
The numbers provide the first account of how many Sandy victims will be forced to rebuild without insurance. But they do not give a complete picture.
The statistics, for instance, do not indicate the extent of wreckage and exact locations of the buildings. Some suffered only minimal damage. Others may have only been affected by wind -- in which case repairs would be covered by regular homeowners' insurance.
Most private insurers won't write flood policies, saying they are too risky. So the federal government offers coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program, run by FEMA.
The insurance is mandated by law for any homeowner who has a federally backed mortgage and lives in an area likely to flood at least once every century. But many homeowners don't buy it -- even in coastal areas. In some cases, they have paid off mortgages and opt to drop the coverage. In others, rules haven't been enforced, experts say.
In New Orleans, only 40 percent of homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had flood insurance, said Erwann Michel-Kerjan, managing director of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. "People tend to think floods won't happen to them," he said.
Family's policy lapsed
Christina Salazar, 24, lives with her mother and 6-year-old sister in an Oceanside house that was flooded by both Sandy and 2011's Tropical Storm Irene. The family had a flood policy when the first storm hit, and they received a $105,000 settlement. But they let the policy lapse after paying off their mortgage. Then Sandy swamped the house with more than 4 feet of water.
"We will be getting [flood insurance] again," Salazar said. "It's very scary to think we don't have that money to help us this time."
FEMA's numbers do not enumerate how many of the uninsured homes and businesses were required to have coverage. The agency said more detailed information would be available next month.
Even those with flood insurance may struggle with rebuilding costs, experts said. The federal program's maximum coverage for a flooded home is $250,000. While some private companies offer additional coverage, few people opt for it.
Facing $700G repair cost
Radha Sachdeva's Sayville home was inundated with 10 feet of water in the basement and 3 feet on the first floor. She had the maximum $250,000 flood coverage. But her rebuilding estimate is $400,000. If she and her husband decided to raise the house to guard against future floods, the cost would be $700,000, she said.
"What's a person to do when you have $400,000 in damage? Insurance isn't going to come close," said Sachdeva, a dentist.
As of Friday, FEMA had provided $335.9 million in grants to help Long Islanders who were uninsured or underinsured. The maximum amount for those grants is $31,900. The average grant for homeowners or renters in Nassau and Suffolk, however, has been slightly more than $7,300.
The Small Business Administration, meanwhile, has approved 3,383 low-interest loans to help Island homeowners rebuild. The average loan has been around $77,800.
Kamer, the economist, said that although legions of vacant flood-ruined homes would devastate neighborhoods, they do offer the region an opportunity.
"On the positive side, it gives us a chance to look at our infrastructure, see how vulnerable it is and reconsider our land-use polices," she said. "Rebuilding in a flood zone may not be a good thing."
UNINSURED ON LI
Most Sandy victims lacked flood insurance, making it difficult to afford rebuilding.
WHO WAS COVERED
Buildings with flood insurance
Number of household grants
FEDERAL LOW-INTEREST LOANS FOR VICTIMS
Number of homeowners applications approved
Number of businesses applications approved