Bayfront property owners in Cape May County have a lot to like in the new preliminary flood maps unveiled Tuesday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As expected, the maps show a roughly 80 percent reduction in the highest risk velocity zone compared to the controversial advisory base flood elevation maps released in December. Houses in velocity zones must be built on piling foundations in order to receive the lowest flood insurance rates.
As a whole, though, the size of the flood zones and height of the elevations have increased over the maps that currently set flood insurance rates, said Patrick Holloway, hazard mitigation specialist with FEMA.
"All in all, it's looking a lot more favorable than they were," said Michael McMahon, an account manager with McMahon Insurance Agency in Ocean City.
However, there were several localized changes that left McMahon confused, including several blocks of beachfront houses on the south end of Ocean City that now are in the lowest-risk X-zone, also called the 500 year flood zone. This could mean those houses may not need to buy flood insurance, McMahon said.
"They had three feet of sand after Sandy and they are all in the X zone," he said.
Houses along beach blocks in some towns and a 20-square block section of Wildwood Crest now are in the X-Zone. And other houses, such as those along the peak of Dune Drive in Avalon, have been removed from the flood zone altogether.
Other areas may be in new types of zones. For example, some houses in parts of Stone Harbor now are in newly created AO zones, which means those houses could have shallow water flooding if beach dunes are breached during a storm.
"Countywide, it looked to me they reduced the acreage in the v zones by about 80 percent. That's substantial," said Martin Pagliughi, Cape May County's emergency management coordinator and Mayor of Avalon. "Now it's going to take some time for individual municipalities to analyze and get into the detail and look at the accuracy of where the lines are."
Cape May County as a whole fared much better than other coastal counties in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy. Pagliughi said his town's efforts to increase flood standards also helped reduce damage because houses were built higher and stronger.
"It's still going to have quite an impact on the county overall," said Gerry Thornton, Freeholder chairman. "One thing I'm comfortable with this time is the science is there."
When the advisory maps were released in January, FEMA only had completed the elevation portion of the data. Engineers had yet to finish a complicated analysis of how waves would interact with the land, which is critical in determining where velocity zones will be. FEMA has said for months the advisory maps were the worst case scenario and the updates would reduce the velocity zones.
Preliminary work maps traditionally only have been unveiled for public officials to comment on and analyze before the next round is released to the public, Holloway said. However, the Christie Administration asked that these maps be released to the public so homeowners rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy had the most current information.
The most current information is critical to homeowners because of a state regulation that requires houses that suffered storm damage worth more than 50 percent of the pre-storm value be elevated to meet new flood map standards, plus an additional foot. When that rule was released in January, towns and homeowners were aghast because the maps that were in effect - the advisory maps - contained vastly expanded velocity zones, which would have triggered significant building code requirements.
The preliminary maps released Tuesday automatically become the new state standard for building and rebuilding. Towns have been urged to follow model ordinances that adopt the maps so homeowners can apply for a $30,000 "increased cost of compliance" payout through their flood insurance policy. This money is to help homeowners pay for elevating their houses so that they can meet new flood map standards.
Holloway said there likely would be small changes from the preliminary work maps when FEMA unveils the next versions sometime late summer or fall. Those maps will begin the official public comment period, which ultimately will lead to the maps being adopted for flood insurance rate purposes.
The changes in the maps mean that selling shore homes may become easier, said Ann Delaney, a broker with Powerplay Realty in Avalon.
"This is going to clear up some of the confusion and uncertainty, especially for the homes along the bay with the V zone issue. That was huge for a lot of property owners," Delaney said. "For those waiting to build, they can at least now move forward."
FEMA risk maps can be viewed at region2coastal.com
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