New FEMA flood maps bring some relief to New Jersey coast

June 17, 2013 4:30:08 PM PDT
More than seven months after Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of the Jersey shore, thousands of homeowners are getting some relief from crushing rebuilding and insurance costs.

The federal government has updated its flood maps laying out the likelihood of damage from future storms. The new maps significantly scale back the level of highest danger, the so-called V zones, which had caused many homeowners the greatest aggravation.

Critics said the standards released late last year were too aggressive and did not take into account individual conditions in beach towns. Many homeowners in areas near bays, rivers or streams were lumped together with homes near the ocean in terms of calculating their risk of damage from storm-driven waves.

"It took seven months but FEMA is finally saying, 'We made some big mistakes,'" said George Kasimos of Toms River, a homeowner and founder of a grassroots group called Stop FEMA Now that was formed to oppose the original maps and their tough standards. "It's the first good news we've gotten in seven months."

The new maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency reduce the velocity zones from nearly half to more than three-quarters in the counties that were hardest hit by the Oct. 29 storm. The V zones indicate properties at greatest damage from wave damage in a storm.

The preliminary maps were deliberately over-drawn, said Bill McDonnell, a FEMA official.

"We overestimated the V zone," he said. "We did that intentionally. We were conservative, and if people rebuilt (shortly after the storm), they did not do that to a substandard."

The initial maps also did not include a study called an overland wave analysis, which takes into account obstructions such as buildings, bulkheads, walls, hills or even trees that could blunt the impact of waves.

The largest decrease in V zone coverage was in Atlantic County, where it declined by 80 percent. That's because the county includes large amounts of marshlands that can absorb some of the wave impacts.

Similarly, in Hudson County, the V zone shrank 76 percent because there are so many buildings and other obstructions to blunt the impact of waves.

The zones decreased 46 percent in Monmouth County, and 45 percent in Ocean County.

Kasimos said his home in a back-bay area in Toms River took on a foot and a half of water during the Oct. 29 storm. It was originally placed in a V zone, but has now been downgraded to a less-threatened A zone.

The practical effect of that change is tens of thousands of dollars less in rebuilding and insurance costs, he said. Before, his flood insurance was due to increase to as much as $30,000 a year. Now, it might be $6,000 to $8,000 - better, but still much more than the $1,000 he paid before the storm.

In Sea Bright, one of the hardest-hit communities, Mayor Dina Long estimated that V zones have decreased about 75 percent.

"For a homeowner who has to elevate their home, that's really good news," she said.

Being removed from a V zone will allow homeowners who still need to elevate their houses to do so on concrete slabs rather than on wooden pilings, which is much more expensive.

"Don't get me wrong: it's still going to be difficult," she said. "But it's not going to be impossible now, the way it seemed."

The maps replace the so-called Advisory Base Flood Elevation maps that were issued by the agency last year. FEMA says the new ones reflect a more precise modeling analysis of current flood hazards, including wave analysis, and a more detailed study of other specific conditions that could affect flood risk.

In January, Gov. Chris Christie adopted those advisory base elevation maps as the state's standard for rebuilding, even while cautioning they were likely to be changed. The governor said he acted when he did to give homeowners who wanted to start rebuilding quickly some guidance on how to do it.

But by March, he was criticizing the earlier maps, saying they were too aggressive and needed to be scaled back.

Still to come are the final Flood Insurance Rate Maps. These maps will incorporate previous data and add more details about specific flood risk conditions in communities throughout the state. It could be 2015 before the entire process is completed.