New preliminary flood maps for Atlantic, Ocean and two northern New Jersey counties drastically reduce the high-risk zones that would have required many homes to be built on piling.
Overall, though, the flood hazard zones are still increasing from what has been in place for decades.
The "velocity," or V zones - which would have required homes with flood insurance to prepare for 3-foot waves - were reduced by 80 percent in Atlantic County, said Bill McDonnell, FEMA's hazard mitigation branch director, while Ocean's V zones were reduced by 45 percent.
Gone are V zones that included large sections of Margate, Ventnor, Atlantic City and Brigantine, as well as sections of Little Egg Harbor, Tuckerton and Long Beach Island.
Preliminary maps for Monmouth and Hudson counties also were released Monday, with other counties, including Cape May and Cumberland, to come in the coming months.
McDonnell said that the state Department of Environmental Protection, which adopted the advisory maps shortly after they were initially released, will now be able to transition to the new preliminary maps because of language in the statute that refers to the "best available data."
The maps are not yet effective, FEMA officials stressed, and municipalities won't officially receive the preliminary maps until this summer. Municipalities are also asked to continue to provide information and data for any appeals.
Adoption is expected some time in 2014 or as late as 2015, FEMA said, and Flood Insurance Rate information will also be released soon.
FEMA also reminded residents and homeowners that the overall flood hazard zones will increase from the current, active flood maps, despite the proposed V zones being rolled back.
Many areas currently not in "A" flood zones - in which flooding could be expected during the worst "one percent" of storms, formerly described as the "100-year storm" - will be in flood hazard zones if the maps are adopted. The overall flood hazard zones increased by 6 percent in Ocean County, while exact numbers were not available in Atlantic County.
Homes in the A zone would have a recommendation of base elevations of 9 to 11 feet for homes with flood insurance, which is required for any homes with federally backed mortgages. New Jersey also has a minimum standard of one foot on top of minimum federal requirements, McDonnell said. But unlike in V zones, piling are not required to defend against waves, and building restrictions are not as stringent.
So why were the proposed V zones so much larger than they ended up being?
McDonnell said that FEMA was already in the process of revising its flood maps, many of which had not been changed since the 1980s, when Hurricane Sandy hit in late October. Even though its Overland Wave Analysis Study was not completed, "we provided the state of New Jersey with what we knew."
That's why New Jersey was unique in the nation in seeing its Advisory Base Flood Elevation maps - with its preliminary V zones - released so early, McDonnell said in defense of the decision.
"All indications showed that the risk would increased in the state of New Jersey," McDonnell said. "The risk was increasing and the elevation rising. If anyone wanted to rebuild during the recovery process, it would have been hard to do so without the advisory elevations and zones. It was prudent on our part to provide what we had to the state of New Jersey."
The wave analysis study showed that there were more obstructions to waves in the back bays than originally estimated, especially in Atlantic County.
McDonnell advised those who had already built or rebuilt to V standards - and who now find themselves in a proposed A zone - that "they built to the standard recommended at that time, which was based on the best available data. They will have a more resilient structure and see a benefit in insurance premiums as a result of that."
McDonnell also praised local officials for their input.
"'Sometimes we had what we refer to as 'heated discussions', but all of it was productive," he said. "Information we were able to exchange with them obviously proved to be (helpful). We do applaud local officials for their engagement."
McDonnell made sure to add, however, that "We're not changing the maps because of any political pressure, or any pressure at all."
Local officials praised both FEMA and the local engineers and zoning officials, including the Downbeach-based Coastal Coalition, who spearheaded the efforts to change the maps.
"The whole town had been under a V zone, and now they rolled it back," said Little Egg Harbor Assistant Administrator Mike Fromosky, though officials had not thoroughly examined the maps yet. "Just after a cursory inspection, we don't have any residents in the V zone anymore."
Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther said that for residents, "this has been an incredible relief for them, and a reduction of anxiety," Guenther said. "Those suffering significant damage now have a clear message on how to rebuild." Guenther said.
The city cautioned those homeowners who were anxious to rebuild that they should wait until these new maps came out, he said, and he now expects an increase building permit requests.
As to those who already put their homes on the pilings required in a V zone, "that was a personal decision they made because they wanted to move as quickly as possible to get into their home," he said. "But we did counsel people to wait."
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To see the maps
Preliminary maps can be viewed at http://fema.maps.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=2f0a884bfb434d76af8c15c26541a545
Residents can search where their property is in the new preliminary flood maps at http://www.region2coastal.com/sandy/table .