FEMA shrinks flood zones on new maps, a relief to homeowners

New flood elevation maps scheduled for release Monday by FEMA show a dramatic reduction in high-risk velocity, or V, zones from earlier maps, a change that could slash rebuilding costs for thousands of New Jersey residents.

In Atlantic and Ocean counties, which were among the first counties statewide to see the new maps, the current V zones are predominantly in uninhabited places along the back bays, such as the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Officials in Monmouth and Hudson counties also saw the maps Friday. Other counties will receive them soon.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s preliminary work maps, shown to municipal officials Friday, follow a strong lobbying effort by Hurricane Sandy-addled homeowners and politicians.

The changes mean fewer homeowners will have to raise their homes to meet stringent flood elevation standards. Structures in V zones must be built so their first floors can sustain waves as high as three feet on top of floodwaters, while both A and V zones signify flooding is likely from 100-year rain events.

“This is a substantial win for us,” said Ventnor Mayor Mike Bagnell, who estimated nearly 1,000 properties in his city had been in the V zones. “You’d probably have seen most people walk away from their house.” Bagnell said nearly all of those properties are no longer in V zones.

In December, FEMA released advisory base flood elevations — which were adopted within months by the state and most municipalities — to help homeowners rebuild. The preliminary maps shown to local officials Friday will be available to the general public Monday.

The earlier maps prompted an outcry from local and state officials, and from residents who faced the prospect of substantial house-raising costs or insurance rate increases down the line. Initially, displaced homeowners received mixed messages: They would have to rebuild to the new standards, but the zones could be changed before new insurance rates took effect.

“They should have never released those maps in December,” said Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini. “The anxiety that FEMA created was criminal.”

Homeowners panicked in the wake of the December release. Many towns advised residents to make their homes habitable but delay raising them before the maps were finalized.

FEMA spokesman Chris Mckniff said the mapping study had started before Sandy hit. The preliminary data was released with the caveat that it could change, he said.

“We came to the conclusion we at least needed to give people the best available data we had at the time, knowing a lot of people would be rebuilding,” he said.

Upon the release, groups such as the Coastal Coalition and Stop FEMA Now quickly formed to lobby against the stringent flood maps, while the congressional delegation worked from the inside to soften the blow.

“There’s a lot of internal effort that goes on with these things — numerous phone calls, numerous meetings,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd. “We’ve all pushed for the same thing.”

LoBiondo said it became immediately apparent in December that the first elevations released didn’t account for various mitigating factors, such as bulkheads and sea walls.

What followed was an organized effort involving the various counties, municipalities and legislative districts affected by Sandy.

Alex Marino, a member of the Coastal Coalition and an Atlantic County freeholder-at-large, said all of the lobbying efforts have paid off.

“What that shows is that a united front by all these municipalities and the county does have a positive influence and effect on the federal government,” he said.

Local officials and house-raising experts say the revised maps will help thousands of New Jersey residents.

Steven Hauck, owner of SJ Hauck House Movers in Egg Harbor Township, said the changes mean most homeowners who had been in V zones will save a substantial amount of money.

While some homes in the A zone still will need to be raised on higher foundations, they won’t have to comply with more stringent V-zone guidelines that call for piling. The difference could save property owners tens of thousands of dollars.

“If it’s $50,000 in an A zone, it’s $75,000 in a V zone,” he said.

Since the December release of FEMA’s advisory base flood elevations, movers such as Hauck have been inundated with calls to raise houses. His company has been raising about 10 houses per month.

The majority are in the A zone, he said, because of the uncertainty over the V zone designations.

LoBiondo said he doesn’t believe the drastic reduction in V zones, particularly in Atlantic County, will breed complacency.

“It’s not like it happened 10 years ago,” he said. “People are understanding that we have to be prepared. We have to take the warnings seriously. Maybe we were lucky before Sandy. Maybe we’ll continue to be lucky, but there’s no harm in being prepared.”

The release of the preliminary maps does not mean the work is over.

Little Egg Harbor Township officials, for instance, are concerned some residents may still live in V zones.

“There still may be houses in these V zones that are red, but it’s hard to tell from these maps,” said Assistant Township Administrator Michael Fromosky. “The streets are narrow, and you can’t see any addresses.”

Others were satisfied with the new maps.

“We got everything we asked for with these new maps,” Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora said.

Municipalities still will have the opportunity to appeal the flood elevations. New infrastructure also may have an impact.

Mckniff, of FEMA, said the final preliminary maps are scheduled for release in August, which will lead to a year to 18 months worth of hearings and public comment. During that time, residents and towns can continue to appeal their designations.

Meanwhile, LoBiondo is gathering support in the U.S. House of Representatives for legislation that would reduce the annual flood insurance rate increases.

Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced a similar bill in the U.S. Senate. Menendez said the new maps confirm the widely held belief that the earlier maps were “fundamentally flawed.”

Staff Writer Donna Weaver contributed to this report.

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