New Jersey beachfront homeowners have seen the future — and they don't like it.
Before Hurricane Sandy struck, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been working for years on revised floodplain maps for the Jersey Shore (and for the rest of the country). After the storm, FEMA moved quickly to release its new maps, known as Flood Insurance Rate Maps, or FIRMs, in advisory form so that homeowners and local officials would know where they stood.
But many townsfolk in shorefront communities have been shocked at the changing landscape. Under the new maps, thousands of properties are located in a flood zone for the first time. Other houses already in a flood zone are now subject to a higher Base Flood Elevation (BFE), or find themselves in V Zone, subject to wave action, instead of in an A Zone (where rising water without waves would be the only risk).
Homeowners are squawking. And in response, politicians are offering hope of some relief. Chris Christie has told citizens that the official maps, when they come out in final form in 2013 or 2014, may be dialed back a little from the advisory version, according to a report in the Star-Ledger ("Christie tells packed Manasquan meeting that FEMA will ease new height rules," by Mary-Ann Spoto). "I'm confident the maps are going to change," said Christie. "The only thing I'm not confident about is when."
And New Jersey's Senators are leaning on FEMA to reassess the new maps with a view to understanding how rebuilt or expanded dune systems might reduce the risk, according to the Asbury Park Press ("Senators: Dunes could shrink new FEMA flood zone maps," by Jean Mikle). Noting that the $50 billion flood relief package passed in January would help to pay for beach and dune restoration, Senators Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez argued in a letter to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate that "there is no question that this large investment in flood mitigation will have a significant impact" on the flood risk maps and required construction elevations. ""Communities and residents deserve to have access to accurate flood risk data so that they can make informed decisions about their future," the Senators wrote.
Local officials are accepting the FEMA maps for now — but with reservations, reports the Barnegat-Manahawkin Patch ("Barnegat Committee Reluctantly Adopts FEMA Flood Map Regulations," by Anthony Bellano). "The approval of the maps doesn't mean the township supports or agrees," said Barnegat Township Committee member Martin Lisella. "In fact, it strongly disagrees, particularly with the homes in the V-Zone."
But township officials say that if they don't accept the new elevations, citizens won't be eligible for assistance raising their homes. And they say that they can't appeal the maps until the official versions are released.
Not all New Jersey citizens oppose FEMA's new requirements. In fact, a statewide poll shows support for affected homeowners to follow the rules, reports the Star-Ledger ("Jerseyans say Hurricane Sandy victims should follow FEMA rules or return aid," by MaryAnn Spoto). "Among the respondents, 58 percent said those whose homes were destroyed by Sandy should forfeit their aid if they don't rebuild to the recommendations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency," the paper reports.
And some critics say FEMA's rules aren't really too tough at all. In fact, some argue, the new flood elevation requirements may not be strict enough to account for realistic hazards, and are likely to be toughened, not weakened. Environmentalist Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official, says Chris Christie is "dead wrong" about the FEMA maps being revised to be softer on owners. "The Governor is recklessly misinforming the public and distorting expectations," says Wolfe, now a Sierra Club activist. "When FEMA considers the effect of rising sea levels — as they are legally required to do — the final elevations are going to get higher and the flood zones are going to get larger."