New flood map may change how residents of shore towns in Atlantic, Cape May counties live
New flood zones for thousands of bayfront houses and swaths of low-lying sections of barrier islands now include a dreaded word to property owners: velocity.
Velocity zones, which mean property owners need to prepare for high waves on top of storm surges during hurricanes or northeasters, were limited to just a few houses directly along the beach. Now, dozens of entire blocks in Ocean City, Little Egg Harbor, Margate, Longport and Brigantine will be included, potentially having wide-reaching effects on which residents will be able to afford to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is proposing that almost all bayfront houses on the barrier islands and mainland bay communities be listed in the highest of risk flood zones, according to advisory base flood-elevation maps released Saturday morning. That means that residents may have to shell out significantly more money for flood insurance, and new houses in the zones will be subject to much more stringent building codes.
While these maps were released as information only, with final maps expected sometime this summer, municipalities can adopt the data into their zoning codes, said Ryan Pietramali, risk analysis branch chief for FEMA, on Friday. That could mean homeowners whose houses suffered damage during Sandy that totaled at least 50 percent of the building's value may be forced to rebuild to new building codes, such as raising houses and rebuilding on driven piling.
According to the advisory flood maps, all of the Mystic Islands section of Little Egg Harbor Township now is in this highest risk zone, with a 4-foot increase to the base flood elevation. Additionally, a large swath of the north end of Brigantine and several blocks of the bay side of Ocean City near the Ninth Street Bridge are listed in the new velocity zones, with elevation increases ranging from 1 foot to 4 feet in Ocean City.
Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther said the changes were "not exactly a surprise." City officials will meet Monday to assess and discuss the new maps to determine how the information will be folded into the existing zoning, flood insurance and building ordinances, he said. Residents already are asking for the permits and paperwork needed to raise their homes, he said.
"I know there is certainly a desire to get this completed as quickly as possible, but we also want to be absolutely certain that what we adopt is what is needed for the whole island," he said.
FEMA recommendations are not the law. Towns still must incorporate the guidance into local ordinances. However, if towns do not adopt FEMA standards as the minimum level, home and business owners may have trouble finding flood insurance, and what insurance they can obtain would cost more. A town’s adoption of the FEMA standards can result in property owners qualifying for more storm rebuilding money.
The base flood elevation is the level the water will reach during the 100-year storm, or a storm that has only a 1 percent chance per year of happening. Not every place along the coast will see an increase in elevation height. Many homes already have been built to exceed current flood insurance requirements.
Changes to the oceanfront zones were limited, likely due to years of dune and beach replenishment projects. Much of the worst damage from Sandy in South Jersey occurred along the bays, where flood protections have not been as extensive or uniform as they have along the oceanfront.
Damage from Sandy was not included into the advisory maps. FEMA also does not include sea-level rise in flood maps, Pietramali said Friday.
Little Egg Harbor Township
The Mystic Islands section of Little Egg Harbor Township saw one of the most drastic changes in the new maps. The entire section, which suffered major Sandy damage that left hundreds of homes uninhabitable, used to be classified as a high-risk flood area with main floors of houses only needing to be built to 8 feet above sea level, according to FEMA maps released in 2006. The changes now mean the entire section will be listed as the highest risk velocity zone, so houses will need to be built to a 12-foot elevation, a 4-foot increase.
Mayor John Kehm could not be reached for comment Saturday, but said Friday he anticipated the new elevation to be about 4 feet higher in many places. Kehm also said Friday the township plans to have a public meeting for residents this week, but a time and place had not yet been determined.
Sandy's flooding caused significant damage in Brigantine's low-lying north end, which previously had been listed as requiring the main living space of houses to be at least 10 feet above sea level. Now, a wide swath of properties closer to the bay is included in the highest risk velocity zone with a new elevation of 12 feet. Areas not included in the highest risk zones will have the base flood elevation raised to 11 feet.
Along the South End, where some had predicted that FEMA might roll back the oceanfront highest risk areas, few, if any changes were made to the boundary lines and elevation requirements.
"We're going to meet on Monday with our city engineer and building official, as well as other members of the planning committee, and we'll get the overall impression," Mayor Phil Guenther said. "It certainly will have some impact on how homes are constructed in the future and how some of the homes will have to be raised."
Guenther said it is too soon to know what the overall impact will be to the city and whether the changes could determine if some residents will be able to afford to rebuild. "We will know more Monday," he said.
Egg Harbor Township
Residents along Lakes Bay in the West Atlantic City section of Egg Harbor Township are used to flooding. But during Sandy, many had water in their homes for the first time. Previous flood-insurance rate maps listed the base elevation for all of West Atlantic City as 9 feet, with the risk factor high, but without waves. The maps released Saturday change that. Most houses and businesses are now in the velocity zone, which has a new building elevation of 12 feet. A few swaths farther inland are now at elevation 10.
Nearly all of the communities in Egg Harbor Township's marshy areas, such as Anchorage Poynte and Seaview Harbor, also now are in highest risk velocity zone with base flood elevations of 12 feet.
Mayor James J. "Sonny" McCullough said he had not yet viewed the new maps Saturday, but the township was already making plans to incorporate the information into the zoning code.
"We've just been waiting for the results from FEMA," he said. "We don't want future homes being built where they can be damaged by storms similar to Sandy."
One of the most significant changes in the maps in the Downbeach communities are to homes along Ventnor and Margate's bayfronts. Nearly every bayside house is included in new velocity zones, with base elevations increasing from 10 feet to 12 feet. Three quarters of the perimeter of Ventnor Heights now is included in the velocity zone, along with several blocks near Suffolk and Surrey avenues. Additionally, a large swath of land along the Margate and Longport border now is in that highest risk zone.
Houses and buildings along the bay and near the center of Ocean City's business district all have been added to the highest risk zones. Some of the neighborhoods along the bay, including Venetian and Carnival bayous, will have base flood elevations increased to 11 feet, or a 2-foot increase over the 9-foot level established in the 1984 maps. The flood elevation for some houses directly along the water, particularly north of 18th Street, will increase to 13 feet, or a 4-foot increase over the previous maps.
Sea Isle City
The highest risk flood zone long had only existed along the ocean front and in the narrow northern end of Sea Isle City. But the advisory maps show that several dozen blocks in the city's central section, along with the entire bayfront, now will be included in the velocity zone. While base flood elevations are only increasing between 1 and 2 feet in much of the city; other places in the highest part of the island will remain at 10 feet.
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