The StopFEMANow meeting in Ventnor on Saturday served as an outlet for residents’ anger and confusion over proposed changes to flood maps.
City and government officials, meanwhile, expressed optimism that one of the controversial changes, increased V, or velocity, zones would eventually be reduced — and stressed that now was not the time to become confrontational.
Still, many questions remained over base flood elevations, flood insurance premiums, grandfather clauses and other intertwined issues.
StopFEMANow is a grass-roots organization founded by George Kasimos, of Toms River, as a way to protest the proposed advisory flood maps and create a greater awareness of the coming changes. The Ventnor meeting, which drew more than 100 people to the Ventnor Community Building, was its first south of Ocean County.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is get the word out,” said Kasimos, who was asked to come to Ventnor by former mayor Tim Kreischer. “This is what we need to do. This is how we change things.”
Among the public officials who spoke was state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, whose Republican opponent, Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles, also attended. Whelan said he told Gov. Chris Christie that he was “half-right” in formally adopting the still-changing flood maps, in that new construction should be built to the the new standards, but that everyone else should be allowed to wait until the maps are finalized.
“Most of us here in this room ... we live here, we grew up here,” Whelan said. “We know the oceans and bays. The maps, I politely but (firmly) told the governor, the maps are wrong.”
Ventnor Mayor Mike Bagnell and Longport Mayor Nick Russo, a Democratic state assembly candidate, talked of the work being done by the separate Coastal Coalition of 20 towns up and down the coast. With the help of Atlantic and Cape May counties, they reached out to coastal scientist Stewart Farrell to create a new study on wave patterns to counter FEMA’s maps, which were created by superimposing water levels and elevation levels atop one another.
“It’s impossible to have three-foot waves form in the bay,” Bagnell said. “You need approximately 90 miles of bay, not 1.9 miles.”
If the proposed FEMA maps were adopted, homes in the V Zone would need to be on piling to allow the waves to pass under, in addition to increased elevation levels.
“I think the V Zone is going to be drawn back dramatically, if not disappear completely,” Bagnell said. “I don’t think now is the time to be adversarial with (FEMA). I think if we start being confrontational at them right now, they’re going to put their barriers up. Science will (work) for us, and we have the science on our side.”
Russo called the initial V Zone data “garbage in, garbage out,” but also praised FEMA’s work in relocating people, recovery and mitigation after Sandy.
“After the storm, you couldn’t throw a dead cat without hitting someone with a FEMA jacket on,” Russo said. “I agree, New Jersey could not wait to rebuild, but what I have a disagreement with (is in having) accurate maps, because they’re not finished. ... But we’re not going to win this by emotion, we’re going to win it with science.”
Kasimos said he agreed that he didn’t want to be adversarial, “(And) I don’t want to scream at anyone. But we need this to happen now. ... We don’t want to write a letter saying, ‘Please look into this.’ No, we’re saying, ‘Stop right now.’”
The meeting also discussed the recent Biggert-Waters Act, which would end flood insurance being subsidized, even for homes grandfathered in before the 1970s, and the increased base elevations in A Zones, which officials have been less confident about changing.
Republican Atlantic County Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica, who did not attend, said afterward, “I hope this wasn’t an opportunity to politicize something that is so important and vital to the future of this area’s property values. That being said, I’m very optimistic. From my perspective, FEMA has made a complete 180 from the first meeting in January, and what we are slowly seeing is a way to make a determination of the V Zone and (elevation) heights in a way that is not damaging to property values.”
At the meeting, Ronald Ciurlino, who lives on the back bay in Atlantic City, called the zones “flawed” and said the salt marsh across the street is usually “90 percent dry.”
As to whether he was optimistic of changes, “You don’t know about the federal government,” he said. “But that’s why I’m here. Strength in numbers.”
Doug Sherwen, of Ventnor, said the meeting was a good idea, though as someone who doesn’t have flood insurance he was unclear about his home’s true base elevation.
“But there’s still so many questions out there,” he said. “With all this uncertainty, where does this leave us now?”
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