Homeowners and municipal officials cheered last month when newly released preliminary working flood maps downgraded vast swaths of the highest-risk velocity zones to regular flood zones.

But did the new maps go too far in downgrading future flood risks for shore homeowners?

Areas along the ocean side of barrier islands not only had downgraded risk, but in some cases dozens of blocks were removed from flood zones all together.

A comparison of the new flood maps with aerial images taken days after Hurricane Sandy shows that some areas in Ocean County that were, in effect, ground zero for Sandy’s storm surge now sit either in low-risk, 500-year flood plains or, in some cases, out of the flood plain entirely.

The downgrading of working flood maps was a reprieve for homeowners and town officials. But experts fear some shore homeowners will not rebuild their houses to be more storm-resistant unless forced to by the tougher building requirements in flood zones, contradicting six months of state efforts to prepare the shore for future storms.

If anything, the ongoing debate over the flood maps underscores the major role they’ll play in homeowners’ lives and shore towns’ preparedness for future storms. They can make homeowners flee, or spend a fortune rebuilding. Or, experts warn, they can lull towns into a false sense of security.

There are many who say Sandy truly was a rare flood that far exceeded what the Federal Emergency Management Agency set as the general risk — the so-called 100-year or 1 percent storm.

“I was absolutely amazed to see that there is a swath of land that is not in a flood zone at all,” said Stephen Acropolis, mayor of Brick Township, Ocean County, which sustained major damage along the oceanfront. “If you overlay the Sandy (damage image), you’ll see debris in front of someone’s house that is no longer in a flood zone.”

Many towns, including Ocean City, Ventnor, Beach Haven and Ortley Beach, long have had narrow sections along the beach blocks that were either in 500-year flood zones or out of the flood zone all together. The latest maps actually reduced the size of those zones in some places compared with the maps currently used to set rates for flood insurance.

South of where Sandy made landfall near Brigantine on Oct. 29, the storm caused flooding at about that 1 percent level. North of where the storm made landfall, the flooding and effects along parts of the Jersey Shore, including Ortley Beach, Mantoloking and Seaside Heights, exceeded that of the 0.2 percent level, or the 500-year storm.

A storm exactly like Sandy is an anomaly unlikely to occur again in the foreseeable future. But the storm’s flooding level could become more common in the future as the sea level rises, and climate change could fuel more frequent and intense storms.

FEMA says the science behind the latest maps is strong.

However, the maps do not consider how conditions may have changed since Sandy, such as lowered land height, nor do they consider future conditions, said Bill McDonnell, FEMA’s hazard mitigation branch director. The maps also are designed with the average of what storm models predict, and the same storm could have a different impact on different towns, he said.

“We do not map on one storm specifically (in the modeling),” McDonnell said. “You will have some storms with more significant and less significant effects. … The average is what we come up with.”

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said last week that the state was relying on FEMA to design the maps and computer models. “Overall, we’re comfortable with the science and the work they did.”

McDonnell and Martin said that communities could adopt tighter standards if they wished and that homeowners also could choose to elevate their homes higher than the levels outlined in the latest maps.

Whether homeowners in the most devastated areas rebuild to a higher standard, if not forced to by the state, is a major concern for some.

“I’m really worried about what these maps are showing and what it’s going to mean for future construction,” in the most devastated areas, said Mark Mauriello, former DEP commissioner and coastal-flood expert. “Now is the time to be aggressive about promoting a very high standard. I hope folks don’t have to be arm-twisted to get it.”

In Ventnor, where there was little damage caused by the ocean during Sandy, the 500-year flood zone along Atlantic Avenue was dramatically reduced in the latest map. Mayor Mike Bagnell said, overall, “our map does closely represent how the water actually did flood in the area” during Sandy.

But in Brigantine, sections of the south end now are in a low-risk 500-year flood zone for the first time. Municipal Engineer Ed Stinson said that the city wanted to make sure the maps fully presented the higher 100-year flood risk and that those now in the 500-year zone likely would see their insurance rates drop.

Stinson said the city likely would adopt an ordinance for all new construction, including houses in the low-risk areas, to meet higher flood standards than required by FEMA and New Jersey.

Beach communities in Toms River, including Ortley Beach and Dover Beaches North, long have had a thin strip of land along the beach block that was not in a flood zone. But township Engineer Bob Chankalian said the latest maps reduced those areas and introduced a new type of zone, AO, which warns of “shallow water flooding.”

While some areas with the most catastrophic damage from Sandy now are not in flood zones, Chankalian said, the damage images are a reminder that Sandy was stronger than what the maps tell residents to prepare for. “The biggest thing that would help us (prepare for the future) would be the dune project,” Chankalian said.

Barrier island houses that are not in flood zones still have a risk of flooding if storms are unusually strong. That concerns some experts because many residents view the maps as black and white, either in the flood zone and, therefore, at risk of flooding, or out of the flood zone, said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

“There is a saying among us flood plain managers that sometimes the highest-risk families are those that live in the 101-year flood zone,” Berginnis said. “The reason their risk is so high is, you don’t have the building standards, you don’t have the (building) requirements to follow.”

Contact Sarah Watson:

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.