Two groups with different strategies to opposing proposed FEMA flood maps — one made of city officials, one grass-roots — will be centered on one place this weekend.
Ocean County-based StopFEMANow will hold a meeting Saturday in Ventnor, one of the Downbeach towns that has formed the core of the multicity Coastal Coalition.
Both groups’ goal: convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state government that proposed base flood elevations and zones are flawed. And in at least one aspect — the controversial “V,” or velocity, zones — many are starting to believe there will definitely be some kind of change.
“We’ve gone from being stonewalled by FEMA to the point where they agree with us that changes have to be made with the maps,” said Margate Mayor Mike Becker. “One big voice is better than very small voices.”
The Coastal Coalition, originally formed by mayors, code enforcement officers, engineers and other city officials in Ventnor, Margate and Longport, has expanded to about 20 other communities along the shore.
With the help of Cape May and Atlantic counties, the group has reached out to professor Stewart Farrell of Richard Stockton College’s Coastal Research Center to conduct several meetings — the latest in late March — discussing the science of the flood maps. They’ve also met with state Department of Environmental Protection and FEMA officials.
“At the very first hearing with FEMA representatives, they really didn’t like the idea of some clam-diggers having an input on how they design maps,” said Margate City Solicitor Scott Abbott. “They said revised maps would come out in September or October. We said, ‘Guys, you’ve been working on this for two years plus. We won World War II in less than four years. How come it’s taking so long?’ So there was some hostility, and I’ll admit I was part of that hostility. But when the V zones first came out, it was devastating.”
The V zones, which include large swaths of bayfront and even inland neighborhoods in many barrier islands, would require homes to be placed on piling to protect against waves from the bay of 3 feet or higher.
Farrell said Gov. Chris Christie and his administration, which has sought to codify the proposed maps into law, have “kind of backed up a bit from positions made earlier. We’ve said they’ve been much too aggressive in V zone placement, and they’ve said, ‘Yeah, we kind of agree.’”
The V zone lines were created by superimposing water elevations on top of the latest land-elevation data, created using laser technology, Farrell said.
“Everywhere the depth on land was 4 feet or greater, they drew a line,” Farrell said. “There was no attempt to evaluate obstacles in the way (of waves), like rows of houses, bulkheads, road grades, vegetation, trees. Anything that can break the waves was not considered.”
When newer maps are released — Abbott said June was the newest timeline he has heard — “We should see a substantial shrinkage on on-land, bayside V zones,” Farrell said.
Abbott was also optimistic.
“We’ve finally gotten to the point where we feel fairly confident that the maps coming out will have a greatly reduced V Zone,” Abbott said. “Which is very, very significant.”
Ventnor Mayor Mike Bagnell said the coalition is starting an attempt to affect the minimum base flood elevation levels in the proposed maps as well.
“We’re in the process of trying to contact people around the city with an ‘elevation certificate’ of their house, and asking people to take into account the known elevation to the actual amount of water they got in their house,” Bagnell said.
One of the first Ventnor residents to make such a measurement, Frank Cavallaro, showed how his Lafayette Avenue home’s ground floor level of 10 feet was slightly less than 4 feet above the base of his concrete crawl space — which he said did not have any water during Sandy.
While Cavallaro’s home is in the proposed lesser-risk “A” zone and currently meets the 10 foot base elevation standard, he said his home is in a part of the A zone where FEMA says 1.5 feet of wave action can be expected — which, while not affecting flood insurance purchase requirements, FEMA recommends be used by cities in creating more stringent building construction standards as if they were V zones.
“We think that if we get enough residents in town that have elevation certifications and know the maximum height of water ... we can do our own study as to what flood elevations were during Sandy,” Cavallaro said.
Meanwhile, StopFEMANow, founded by George Kasimos, of Toms River, will hold its first meeting south of Ocean County after getting good turnouts during its first four meetings.
Since its creation on Facebook in January, Kasimos said the group has gotten more than 2,800 likes and 15,900 hits. He’s also met with several local officials and plans to meet with a Christie policy adviser this month.
“StopFEMANow is a group of concerned citizens, who have not only been affected by Super Storm Sandy, but who have been impacted on varying levels by the implications of the new FEMA flood maps,” its website states. “We want to, quite simply, Stop Fema Now.”
“We have two choices,” Kasimos said Thursday. “We can do nothing, or we can do something. We’re doing something.”
The Coastal Coalition, he said, “is a wonderful idea. If you’re going to fight FEMA, why should every town hire its own specialists when they can collectively hire experts and have their voices heard?”
Abbott, however, was more wary of the grass-roots group’s confrontational style, saying, “I’m from the school that you catch more flies with sugar than salt. (FEMA) has shown a reception to working with us.”
Not that he’s ruling that strategy out.
“If they don’t change the V zone, if they backtrack on everything they’ve told us the last several months, I’ll be right there on front lines protesting too,” Abbott said. “But not yet.”
FEMA spokesman Dan Watson wrote in an email that input from communities is accepted at all phases of the process.
"FEMA is continuing to work with state and local governments as we make improvements to the maps, with the hope that refinements made along the way lead to a map that accurately reflects a community’s specific flood risk," he said. "At some point after preliminary maps are issued, we will start a formal appeals process, providing a 90 day opportunity for data to be provided, which could lead to additional changes before the map is finalized."
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