News Column

Gov. Christie Gets Feedback on FEMA Flood Maps

Jan 29, 2013

Sarah Watson

State Sen. Jim Whelan is asking Gov. Chris Christie to reconsider an executive order issued last week that established advisory flood maps as the state rebuilding guidelines following Hurricane Sandy.

In a letter sent Monday to the Governor's office, Whelan, D-Atlantic, warned that proposed changes in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's advisory maps do not have scientific backing behind a key aspect of a certain risk zone. Whelan warned the financial consequences of the order will be devastating to homeowners who need to bring their houses up to code.

"While I recognize the intent of your executive order, perhaps a revision in it to cover those situations where property is being entirely rebuilt, and wait until the FEMA maps are finalized for other property owners, like me, whose homes are still standing, would be more appropriate," Whelan wrote.

Whelan, whose home in the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City was damaged during the storm, also is asking the governor to meet with him and other Second District legislators to discuss the order.

"Not only are (the maps) preliminary, the maps that are out now I think are flawed," Whelan said in an interview.

He said the maps do not take into account dunes, bulkheads and other measures put in place to protect some areas from storm-driven waves.

Christie issued an emergency executive order Thursday adopting advisory base flood elevation maps released by FEMA last month as the state rebuilding standard. To enforce the order, the state will use an incentive of a streamlined permitting process and a waived $500 fee for a flood hazard area permit, which is needed for construction or substantial renovation in flood zones.

The only other time FEMA has released advisory maps following a major disaster was following Hurricane Katrina. Municipalities in Louisiana and Mississippii adopted the maps as rebuilding guidelines, but there was no statewide order as Christie has done.

While Christie's executive order would apply to reconstruction of homes that sustanined damage costing more than 50 percent of the building's value and any new construction along the shore, the FEMA maps -- if adopted -- would determine flood insurance rates.

Homeowners are concerned about the cost and feasiblity of raising their homes. But the biggest worry regards the newly expanded highest-risk velocity zones, which require houses to be built to withstand waves on top of floodwaters, something that may be financially impossible for many homeowners.

Existing homes not renovated to the new FEMA standards would face substantial increases in flood insurance premiums once flood maps are adopted. That increase is on top of a congressional mandate forcing flood insurance policy holders to pay more into the deeply indebted system.

Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said that by using the maps, the state is "accelerating the state's rebuilding process, rather than waiting, and ensuring that property is rebuilt in the safest manner possible and that out-of-control flood premiums are avoided as much as possible."

Additionally, Roberts said, "if the state didn't act, flood insurance premiums would skyrocket because of Congress amending the (National Flood Insurance Program) to resemble a commercially underwritten (risk-based) product -- moving away from a subsidized model to one that prices premiums based on actual risk. That's not something in our control."

Whelan said he has spoken with municipal officials, engineers and other experts to try to grasp what the maps mean for shore communities. He also said he was not consulted by the Governor's Office before last week's announcement.

The concern about certain aspects of the maps not having scientific backing relates to velocity zones. Bill McDonnell, FEMA's deputy director of hazard mitigation, said Monday during a flood plain manager's workshop in Tuckerton that the agency's designation of the zones was considered a "worst-case scenario" because a key wave analysis study has yet to be conducted.

That study will be included when the maps are released later this year as part of an ongoing regulatory process to adopt the data into flood insurance rate maps, McDonnell said.

The study likely would substantially reduce the size of areas designated as velocity zones because the data will include the wave's impacts on dunes, bulkheads and buildings..

McDonnell told the more than 30 municipal engineers, tax assessors and state workers in the room, and more than 100 watching online, that flood risks in communities long has been underestimated and the new tools being rolled out will create difficult decisions for homeowners trying to rebuild. Some homeowners may not be able to afford to rebuild or rebuild to new standards, for example.

"You face tough decisions and we're here to help you," McDonnell said. "We realize we're putting you in a position that's very difficult."

That difficult position includes recognizing that Christie's order may have far-ranging financial implications for municipal budgets as ratable bases are critically reduced, potentially shifting economic burden to taxpayers who don't live in flood zones, Egg Harbor Township Mayor James J. "Sonny" McCullough said.

Houses now in newly designated velocity zones based on the advisory maps adopted by the governor are now essentially valueless if they are not built to current codes, McCullough said. And municipal tax assessors have no way to place a value on properties because there are no comparable sales.

"We're in the perfect storm. We just completed a revaluation of the community, and the highest increase in values is along the waterfront, which we have quite a bit of," McCullough said. "The issue is in the areas that didn't sustain the total damage, like some of the North Jersey homes have, the fincancial damage to peoples' properties is worse than the actual storm itself."



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Source: (c) 2013 The Press of Atlantic City (Pleasantville, N.J.)