SEA ISLE CITY — Homeowners soon will qualify for discounts on flood insurance after the city was admitted into a Federal Emergency Management Agency program.

Mayor Leonard Desiderio said the city received word that it is eligible for the Community Rating System, which provides discounts of 5 to 20 percent on flood-insurance premiums.

The island has been pursuing this benefit since 1993, when FEMA warned the island’s flood preparation was so poor that it was on the brink of losing any flood coverage whatsoever.

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“We were in such bad shape when we started this. Now we’re a poster child for flood management. Went from the worst to one of the best,” Desiderio said.

The announcement comes close to the 50-year anniversary of the March 1962 storm that devastated the island and much of the rest of southern New Jersey’s coastline.

“Blocks and blocks were washed away. Many businesses that were on the Boardwalk got washed away,” Desiderio said.

These improvements might do little to help the island withstand the storm of the century, but they will help greatly to prevent major damage from the storm of the year or decade.

“You’re not going to stop Mother Nature, but we’re in much better shape than we were in the ’62 storm,” Desiderio said.

What took so long? The mayor said when FEMA officials warned him of the city’s insurance status in 1993, the city basically had to start from scratch.

City staff went to pull flood-elevation maps for private properties on the island only to learn that these documents and many other land records had been lost to flooding over the years.

“Yes, all of our flood records were damaged in a flood,” Desiderio said, acknowledging the irony.

The city set to work preparing more than 7,000 new flood-elevation maps, records that are now stored securely on the second floor of the former firehouse on West Jersey Avenue.

Council passed several ordinances to beef up zoning and flood prevention on the island. For example, the city’s zoning rules outlaw so-called ground-floor “bonus” rooms, storage rooms typically attached to garages that some property owners converted for use as an extra bedroom.

Now construction rules dictate that these storage areas have low ceilings to prevent occupancy. In all new construction, the first occupied floors must be a foot higher than federal rules require.

The city last year threatened to take nearly 200 property owners to court to force their compliance over flood-preparation deficiencies in their homes.

“We didn’t want to drag these homeowners into court. But they weren’t responding. When they got the summons, they cooperated,” Desiderio said. “We got their attention by issuing summonses to take them to court.”

The mayor estimated that homeowners collectively will reap about $400,000 per year in savings on their flood policies. And when a storm does strike the island — as happens virtually every year — these properties will be better prepared to handle the rising flood waters without suffering catastrophic damage, city consultant Sal DiSimone said.

He worked with the city as its flood-plain manager.

“You have to give credit to council. A lot of local residents were against it because of the changes,” he said. “But overall, I can see the town saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The exact figure has not been determined. Desiderio said property owners should see a decrease starting in 2013.

Contact Michael Miller:

609-463-6712

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