Post-Sandy flood maps bring some relief to New Jersey coast

TRENTON, N.J. - June 17, 2013

LINK: Updated FEMA Flood Map

His home in a back-bay region of Toms River took on a foot and a half of water during Superstorm Sandy, and when the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued new flood maps shortly afterward, his house was included in the most perilous zone possible. The designation of V-zone meant that the house was in danger of damage from 3-foot waves during major storms - even though it is nowhere near the ocean.

On Sunday, the agency updated its maps, removing Kasimos and thousands of others from the so-called velocity zones. That will grant homeowners some relief from crushing rebuilding and insurance costs for those struggling to rebuild from the Oct. 29 storm.

"It took seven months but FEMA is finally saying, 'We made some big mistakes,'" said Kasimos, a homeowner and founder of a grassroots group called Stop FEMA Now that was formed to oppose the original maps and their tougher standards. "It's the first good news we've gotten in seven months."

Under the old maps, Kasimos said his flood insurance was due to increase to more than $30,000 a year. Now, it might be $6,000 to $8,000 - better, but still much more than the $1,000 he paid before the storm. Raising the house might now cost $50,000 instead of $150,000 under the old maps, he said.

The new maps indicate an overall increase in the risk of flood damage of all sorts, even as it scaled back the amount of homes deemed to be at greatest risk. In Hudson County, there was a 29 percent overall increase in risk, and a 25 percent increase in Monmouth County. Ocean County increased by 6 percent, and data was not available for Atlantic County.

Critics said the standards released late last year were too aggressive and did not take into account conditions in local communities. Many homeowners in areas near bays, rivers or streams were lumped together with homes near the ocean in terms of calculating their risk of damage from storm-driven waves.

The preliminary maps were deliberately overdrawn, said Bill McDonnell, a FEMA official.

"We overestimated the V zone," he said. "We did that intentionally. We were conservative, and if people rebuilt (shortly after the storm), they did not do that to a substandard."

The initial maps also did not include a study called an overland wave analysis, which takes into account obstructions such as buildings, bulkheads, walls, hills or even trees that could blunt the impact of waves.

The largest decrease in V zone coverage was in Atlantic County, where it declined 80 percent. That's because the county includes large amounts of marshlands that can absorb some of the wave impacts.

Similarly, in Hudson County, the V zone shrank 76 percent because there are so many buildings and other obstructions to blunt the impact of waves.

The zones decreased 46 percent in Monmouth County, and 45 percent in Ocean County. FEMA could not estimate how many individual structures were removed from the V zones.

Being removed from a V zone will allow homeowners who still need to elevate their houses to do so on concrete slabs rather than on wooden pilings, which is much more expensive.

Faith Ligouri's home in Seaside Park was swamped with 5 feet of water, wrecking the entire first floor. She dealt with the mold, tussled with the insurance company, and agonized over whether her family would be able to rebuild a small apartment in which her parents lived.

She expressed "tremendous relief" to see that she was no longer in a V zone.

"This is good news, but I still have a lot of uncertainty to deal with," she said. "Have you seen FEMA's website? There are thousands of pages telling you what to do. If you make the wrong call, then what happens? Every penny is crucial at this point."

In Sea Bright, one of the hardest-hit communities, Mayor Dina Long estimated that V zones have decreased about 75 percent. When FEMA gave elected officials a sneak peak at the new maps over the weekend, she feared there was some hidden bad news she was missing.

"I was afraid to be happy," she said. "I let five people check it to make sure I wasn't missing something or making a mistake. Don't get me wrong: It's still going to be difficult. But it's not going to be impossible now, the way it seemed."

The maps replace the ones issued last year that Gov. Chris Christie adopted those maps as the state's standard for rebuilding in January, even while cautioning they were subject to change. The governor said he acted when he did to give homeowners who wanted to start rebuilding quickly some guidance on how to do it.

But by March, he was criticizing the earlier maps, saying they were too aggressive and needed to be scaled back.

Still to come are a final set of maps, but that might not be until 2015.

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