New FEMA Maps Should Help Jersey Stay Higher and Drier

Tom Johnson | December 17, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Federal agency releases interactive maps of Jersey shoreline to help individuals and communities rebuild above the floodplain

The federal government has unveiled maps that may determine how and where homes are rebuilt along the Jersey Shore and other areas subject to frequent flooding.

The maps, developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), are designed to make the Shore more resilient to major storm like Hurricane Sandy and less vulnerable to flooding and storm surges, which left 70,000 buildings damaged and more than 500 destroyed.

Just how carefully communities and residents follow the guidelines remains to be seen. In some towns, officials already are rushing to rebuild boardwalks and other areas devastated by the superstorm in an effort to have the Jersey Shore open for business by Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer tourism season.

Federal and state officials say building to the new standards advocated by FEMA could lower flood insurance costs in the long term, while increasing rebuilding costs in the short-term.

The cost to elevate some homes above the floodplain could run as much as $30,000, according to FEMA’s website, although the precise cost will depend on location and other rebuilding factors.

“We have to seize the day to build a disaster-resilient community,’’ said Tim Crowley, Region II director of mitigation for FEMA, at a conference earlier this month at Monmouth University.

In the wake of Sandy, climate scientists and state officials have repeatedly emphasized that major extreme storms are likely to occur more frequently. Even before Sandy, FEMA was working on its flood insurance maps, which had not been updated in more than 25 years.

Most climate scientists predict sea levels will rise, posing a bigger threat to the Jersey Shore. In Atlantic City, where records date back the farthest, there has been 16-inch increase in sea level over the past 100 years, according to experts.
The agency initially expected to release the maps sometime next year. But given the magnitude of the destruction wrought by the storm, FEMA has issued Advisory Base Flood Elevations (ABEFs). Such maps were first used in the rebuilding of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

The new maps will affect ten of New Jersey’s 21 counties: Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, and Union.

“The current maps don’t reflect the risk of today,’’ Crowley said at the Monmouth University event. “Let’s address the risk now if a Sandy-like storm comes in a year or two.’’

“We know what works,’’ agreed former Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Mark Mauriello, speaking at the same conference. “The $37 billion question is can our leaders summon the bold, decisive, and cost-effective solutions to ensure more resilient communities.’’