A state emergency order that set higher elevations for many homes along the shore as the new rebuilding standards in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is a step closer to becoming permanent regulation.
The Department of Environmental Protection has filed documents with the administrative law office to make the order permanently part of state code. The filed documents keep in place Gov. Chris Christie’s order, according to a DEP press release.
“We must never allow ourselves to forget the scope of destruction from Sandy,” DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said in a statement. “It is absolutely critical that we rebuild stronger and more resilient in the aftermath of this historic storm.
The tougher standards, which will also apply to new construction at the shore, are part of a federally driven effort to ensure houses are rebuilt to better withstand storms and to minimize flood losses.
The higher elevations were part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new advisory base flood elevation maps and were adopted by Christie as the new state standard in January.
Looming changes to the federal flood insurance program also means that homeowners, who don’t meet the new standards by the time the maps are formally adopted by FEMA in about two years, could have annual flood insurance bills in the tens of thousands of dollars.
The rule was the subject of a contentious public hearing earlier this month in Long Branch, where residents from along the coast urged DEP to revisit the order because the advisory maps have flaws.
The maps, which were released in December by FEMA, added about 33,000 homes to a flood zone and increased base flood elevations between 1 foot and 6 feet for many neighborhoods, with the average increase of between 2 feet and 4 feet.
Some neighborhoods, mostly along the ocean side of barrier islands, did not have elevation increases.
While elevation has been a source of concern for many who now have to raise their houses, what sparked the ire of residents and elected officials was the expansion of the highest risk velocity zones, which were more than doubled.
FEMA released the advisory maps to help communities better determine how to rebuild, the agency has said. The agency was in the midst of a five-year process to update the flood maps, which last were revised in the 1980s and do not accurately reflect flood risks to many coastal homeowners.
In the document filed Monday, DEP said the advisory maps have better and more accurate data than the previous maps, which underestimate the risk by up to 8 feet in places.
“Had the Department not taken these steps to allow for the use of the ABFEs, and to incorporate future FEMA mapping, residents would have been able to reconstruct their substantially damaged structures using the prior and inaccurate flood elevations, creating a potentially significant detriment to public health, safety and welfare during the next flooding event,” the document stated.
DEP said in its news release that coming changes to the maps could include fewer houses that will be required to elevate. Some elected officials and Christie also said they expect that the velocity zones in many areas will be changed.
FEMA deputy hazard mitigation specialist Bill McDonnell has said the elevation data in the maps is sound, but the velocity zone data was not complete because an engineering study still has yet to be completed.
Property owners, whose houses suffered damage valued at 50 percent or more of the pre-storm value, are required to rebuild so the repaired building meets the new elevations, plus 1 foot, per state law.
The order also allows for “wet floodproofing,” which is for buildings that will structurally withstand flooding, but cannot be raised, such as high rises and row homes in highly urbanized areas.
The state plans to offer eligible homeowners up to $150,000 grants to rebuild or elevate their storm-damaged houses, but the grants will be limited to primary homeowners who meet income limits, according to a draft spending plan for how the state will distribute $1.8 billion in federal aid.
To be eligible for those grants, homeowners also must have registered with FEMA. The deadline to register with FEMA is April 1.
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