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Revised FEMA Maps Cheered by Shore Residents, Criticized by Environmentalists

New maps relax restrictions on where homeowners can rebuild, and what sort of precautions they must take.

The outcry that greeted FEMA’s preliminary flood maps officially adopted by Gov. Chris Christie in the aftermath of Sandy began almost the moment they were introduced. Many residents would have to raise their homes and businesses several feet on pilings, or else pay dramatically higher flood insurance rates in the years to come, and they didn’t like what they saw. They held rallies, formed Facebook groups opposing the new restrictions and contacted their political leaders, calling for the elevations to be reconsidered.

Those maps had last been updated in the early 1980s, and were in the process of being updated again when Sandy hit. They weren’t yet complete, but FEMA’s regional Mitigation Director Bill McDonnell says the agency decided to release them anyway as an early guideline for coastal residents starting the recovery process. “It was based on the best available data that we had at that time,” he said. “It was a conservative estimation so that if people were rebuilding, we knew that they were going to rebuild to a higher standard.”

But the portion of the maps that had not yet been finished involved accurate demarcations of which areas were considered “velocity zones.” Those are the most at-risk parts of the shore where buildings would have to be built to withstand three-foot waves, on top of the flooding.

Given the absence of this data, FEMA opted to release maps based on what it acknowledged was an overly conservative, worst-case scenario. “I think there was a rush to get out some of the information that maybe wasn’t ready for primetime,” says Richard Lathrop, a professor of environmental monitoring at Rutgers University.

Compared with the fierce popular reaction to those initial maps, it was a different scene earlier this week, when FEMA issued revisions that significantly scaled back many of its projections. The maps cover 194 municipalities in Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union counties.

It should be noted that at this point, only New Jersey has adopted the new maps as standards. FEMA -- and the insurance companies -- will not officially adopt them until 2014.

Toms River Mayor Tom Kelaher was one of many coastal residents who breathed a sigh of relief. The lower elevation requirements mean reductions in the cost of rebuilding and flood insurance premiums. Kelaher said that after all the confusion, uncertainty, and waiting, people in Toms River were glad to finally have the revisions in front of them so they could move on with their lives. “What we're anticipating is a rush for building,” he said. “We're certainly telling people, OK, now you can rely on them.”

Professor Lathrop and environmental advocates like Jeff Tittel, the executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, say they agree with many of the scaled back elevations contained in the revised FEMA maps. Tittel fears, though, that the revisions may have been influenced by political pressures -- a claim disputed by FEMA -- and that they’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. He says the maps simply don’t represent the true dangers of living along the coast.

“It’s like driving down the highway, going eighty miles an hour, only looking in the rearview mirror and not looking at what’s in front of you,” he said, noting that neither the old maps nor the new ones take into account any of the flooding caused by Sandy, sea level rise, or what scientists predict is an increased risk for more severe storms.

FEMA’s McDonnell responds that storms similar to Sandy were used in the modeling. But he says that while FEMA is considering including climate change in its future maps, that consideration is currently left up to states and local communities. “If they’re looking at our product as a minimum standard, they can always be more restrictive,” he explained. “The higher they go and the safer they are, ultimately, the more resilient they’ll be, and they could be saving money in insurance premiums down the road.”

While New Jersey standards do mandate that residents rebuild at least one foot above the FEMA elevations for their area, the Christie administration has been so far uninterested in including climate change as a consideration in most of its post-Sandy planning. “It’s not a main concern for me,” the governor said at a press conference back in February. “I have to tell you the truth, I’ve been focused on a lot of things; the cause of this is not one of them that I’ve focused on,” he said.

Lathrop -- who runs the Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at Rutgers -- has helped develop an online, satellite-based flood-mapping tool that shows what areas would flood if you do account for sea level rise.

He says that whether residents and municipalities choose to rely on the FEMA maps or more cautious standards like the ones his department has drafted depends on whether they’re more focused on short-term rebuilding or longer-term planning. “It really is a question of over what time frame people are making their decisions, and what risk they’re willing to accept,” he said.

The problem with the FEMA maps, Lathrop says, is that they predict the current risk of flooding, but with climate change in the picture, past experience is not an accurate predictor of future events.

Tittel puts it more bluntly. He says the reluctance to make major changes to the development patterns along the Jersey Shore, “strategic retreating” from some of the most vulnerable areas, and continuing to repeat what he feels are the mistakes of the past constitute a form of insanity. “We’re cutting ribbons on boardwalks that were just destroyed in the same place in the same way,” he said. “I mean, it doesn’t make sense.”

Scott Gurian is the Sandy Recovery Writer for NJ Spotlight.

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