No matter how long he is mayor of Sea Isle City, his first week on the job probably will be the one that Leonard Desiderio never forgets. That’s when he was told a lack of flood-mitigation practices on the barrier island had jeopardized the city’s standing in the National Flood Insurance Program, and he needed to act fast to save it from expulsion.
“I was in office for exactly seven days when I received a phone call from the construction office telling me I had to be in a FEMA meeting,” Desiderio says. “I said, ‘What’s a FEMA meeting?’”
He learned, at times painfully, and 22 years later, he and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have become big supporters of one another. FEMA calls Sea Isle City “the best in show” because of its stunning turn-around in the Community Ratings System, or CRS, program, he said.
“This is a story of being one of the worst to one of the best in the CRS program,” Desiderio said. “We were on the verge of being expelled and our residents would not be able to get flood insurance. It’s about going from almost suspended to the best. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
“We use Sea Isle City as our success story,” said Crystal Tramunti, mitigation coordinator for FEMA’s Region 2 — New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — adding that the agency has a link on its website of Desiderio sharing Sea Isle’s inspiring journey with viewers.
Although more than 22,000 communities nationwide participate in NFIP, fewer than 1,300 participate in CRS, a voluntary program that offers incentives to communities that exceed FEMA’s minimum requirements. Sixty-four municipalities in New Jersey participate, with Beach Haven, Long Beach Township and Longport among the top achievers, each having earned in excess of 3,000 points. Atlantic City, with 970 points, is one of the lowest performers, and Wildwood does not participate in the program.
The more points a community amasses, the greater the discount it earns for its residents on their flood insurance premiums.
Sea Isle, with 2,884 points, is striving to break through the 3,000-point barrier, one of the prerequisites for earning residents a 30 percent discount on flood insurance. A March 10 visit with a FEMA representative has been postponed, giving officials time to continue working on their watershed master plan, an activity that could help the city improve its current 25 percent discount.
A variety of activities — some as simple as providing flood-mitigation information to residents, some as extensive as photographing every one of the island’s 7,000-plus structures and obtaining elevation certificates for each — helped the city become a leader in the CRS program.
“They were barely meeting the standards of their local ordinances,” Tramunti said of Sea Isle when, in 1993, the island could have been retrograded out of the program. “There was lots of publicity about them being removed at the time.”
But Sea Isle officials fought hard to remain in the program, Desiderio said, and did so well that Tramunti proudly refers to the city’s experience as “the classic underdog story.”
“The mayor and council have held Sea Isle to higher and greater standards,” said Neil Byrne, the construction and zoning officer as well as the city’s CRS coordinator. “They’ve made it a greater priority for the community.”
Staying high and dry
Sea Isle City has implemented and enforced ordinances that require new construction to be built above FEMA’s base flood elevation level, has begun replacing bulkheads at 6-foot elevation with bulkheads built to 7.5-foot elevation to prevent all but the most severe flooding along the back bays, and has committed to a maintenance schedule for its storm sewer system — among other initiatives, Byrne said.
It also prohibits several building practices that FEMA permits, such as ground-floor foyers and entrances, and breakaway walls on homes in V zones, the most vulnerable areas of shore towns, said Byrne. He is also instrumental in the Atlantic Cape Coastal Coalition, a group of mostly barrier island towns that formed in the wake of Sandy to share ideas on flood insurance issues, flood mitigation projects and the CRS program.
Sea Isle requires homeowners to obtain a venting certificate when a property changes hands to ensure sufficient vents are installed in the foundation to allow floodwaters to flow through. Homeowners also must sign a non-conversion agreement, a document that states they will not transform areas below BFE into living space. The NFIP does not cover property below base flood elevation.
“It all works toward alleviating flooding,” Byrne said of the numerous projects Sea Isle has undertaken to improve its standing in the CRS program. “It’s about eliminating water from the center of town and getting it back where it belongs.”
“Sea Isle is not just doing this to save their residents money,” Tramunti said. “They’re doing it to make their residents safer and to protect their investments.”
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