Uncertainty, fear and outrage have become demands for action as New Jersey shore homeowners and officials digest the sweeping new requirements for rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy.
An emergency order issued by Gov. Chris Christie late last month that adopted federal advisory flood maps as the state standard for rebuilding along the Jersey Shore has cleared things up for those whose houses were washed away. But the same decision has brought new problems for those with damaged homes still standing: How can they rebuild to standards under which construction may be logistically or financially impossible?
Advisory base elevation flood maps are released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide communities with guidelines for how to better rebuild following a major disaster, but they have been issued only once before — about nine months after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Unlike in New Jersey, the maps then were adopted by only some municipalities, not on a state level. FEMA also considers the new elevations as the minimum, encouraging homeowners to build two feet above the base flood elevation. New Jersey law requires at least one foot above.
The issue, however, isn’t about new flood elevations. Rather, it involves the dramatic expansion of the highest-risk velocity zones, areas where buildings are required to be built to withstand waves on top of floodwaters and houses must be built on piling. Expanding these zones means a high number of homes that were only damaged must now rest on piling. Some of those homes are on small, tight lots, where sinking piling would be extremely difficult and expensive because there is no space to move the home out of the way.
Political leaders are seeking a solution. Meetings have been held among municipal leaders, and a coalition of coastal town officials has been formed. State legislators are demanding meetings with Christie’s office, and coastal county governments are urging Christie, a Republican, to reconsider the order. New Jersey’s U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, both Democrats, also have written letters asking that some of the federal aid money be used specifically to raise homes.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said the regulation effectively renders many properties in the expanded areas valueless, since flood insurance rates would rise to tens of thousands of dollars per year because of the higher risk, or the cost to rebuild would be more than the house is worth.
Christie’s office, as well as state Department of Environmental Protection officials, argues that making the advisory maps the state standard gives homeowners a chance to rebuild in a way that will keep flood insurance rates at a more reasonable level when the new FEMA maps are finalized in about two years.
FEMA had been working on the maps before Sandy struck, and some shore homeowners might have been thrust in several years into potentially five-figure annual flood insurance bills with little warning. However, adopting the map standards now means that storm aid and federal grants could help homeowners meet the looming standards, state officials say. The amount of potential aid to raise homes, lowering future flood insurance costs, might not have been available if the storm had not occurred.
The billions of dollars in aid that will begin flowing into the state was a point Christie stressed during the news conference in which he announced the emergency order. However, details for those grants are unknown because the policy behind them is still being created.
FEMA is expected to release the preliminary maps for Atlantic County in September. Cape May County’s maps are due in October, and Ocean County’s will be released in August, FEMA officials said during a flood managers training session last week. Until then, the advisory maps will serve as the standard, said Vince Mazzei, supervising environmental engineer in the DEP’s land-use program. The state is using a streamlined permitting process and a waived fee as an incentive for homeowners who are rebuilding right now to meet the new guidelines.
But the state hasn’t closed the door on making the standards less stringent. Mazzei said that now is the time for property owners to protest the zones before the appeal process becomes more complicated.
“When we adopted these rules, we said that because they’re advisory, a person or community could present us with data” that could change the elevation or the zone, Mazzei said.
Challenging the expansion of the velocity zones that are based on elevation, not proximity to the water, is one of the key points state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, intends to make Monday at a meeting in Trenton. The meeting will include mayors from Atlantic County and other coastal counties, representatives from the DEP and Marc Ferzan, head of the governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, Whelan said.
A newly formed coalition of municipal leaders — including engineers, flood plain managers, building officials, elected representatives and solicitors — has been meeting regularly and has asked Richard Stockton College professor and coastal science expert Stewart Farrell for technical assistance, said John Scott Abbott, Margate’s city solicitor. Abbott was among the very first to warn the new building rules could cause a mass exodus at the shore, creating an economic ripple effect that would devastate the region’s economy.
“We know (Christie) has to deal with the entire shoreline and up north, they got it a lot worse than us,” Abbott said. “But this has left a terrible degree of uncertainty and, for many people, they don’t have the money to (put their houses) on piling and, if they did, it’s technically impossible for them to do it.”
Contact Sarah Watson:
Follow @acpresssarah on Twitter