Residents share FEMA, flood frustrations at 1st Ward meeting

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Cindy Nevitt / OCNJ CARE chairman Drew Fasy, guest speaker at Wednesday’s 1st Ward meeting held at the Bayside Center, talks about the formation and actions of the charitable organization in the wake of Sandy. Cindy Nevitt / OCNJ CARE chairman Drew Fasy, guest speaker at Wednesday’s 1st Ward meeting held at the Bayside Center, talks about the formation and actions of the charitable organization in the wake of Sandy.

OCEAN CITY — As the city continues to recover from the damages inflicted by Hurricane Sandy, problems that 1st Ward Councilman Mike DeVlieger described as challenging, complicated and complex are emerging.

“The types of problems are starting to change,” DeVlieger said Wednesday, Feb. 6 during a 1st Ward meeting at the Bayside Center.

DeVlieger mentioned possible unforeseen repercussions of Gov. Christie’s decision to adopt Federal Emergency Management Agency’s advisory base flood elevation maps as law for the state.

In simplest terms, the adoption of the maps means building heights must go up or, in the future, flood insurance premiums will, both expensive scenarios of great concern to residents of the barrier island.

Following an hourlong talk by guest speaker OCNJ CARE chairman Drew Fasy, during which Fasy explained the formation of the charitable organization and its work in the wake of the Oct. 29, 2012 storm, DeVlieger opened up the second hour of the two-hour Ward meeting to questions from the 10 constituents in attendance. Almost all were storm-related.

Construction hardships

Christian Bickings, whose Crescent Road home sustained damage equal to 35 percent of its assessed value, said he is facing a dilemma many other homeowners are.

“What am I supposed to do if I can’t afford to raise my home,” he asked, stating the structure is four feet below base flood elevation, “and I can’t afford the increased flood insurance premiums?”

“Let’s not get too nervous,” DeVlieger said. “This is a very serious matter that has to be addressed. My hope is the governor begins to look at things in greater detail and makes some changes.”

Even for a self-described optimist as DeVlieger, that hope seems dim in light of Christie’s insistence Tuesday during a visit to Union Beach that he will not relent on his stance. While the governor admits his decision will cost shore homeowners a great amount of money and likely cause a lot of duress in bringing their homes into compliance, he remains adamant it is necessary to rebuild and subsequently preserve the state’s shoreline.

To the suggestion that a mass exodus from the Jersey Shore will occur if the FEMA maps remain unchanged and the National Flood Insurance Program increases premiums as much as 25 percent per year for the next four years, DeVlieger said, “It doesn’t do us any good to speculate, but to throw up a ‘For Sale’ sign is not the way.”

DeVlieger said he found merit in the idea of having an advocate argue against FEMA’s maps, which he said are flawed, in an effort to secure changes more favorable to homeowners whose homes sustained less than 50 percent damage. But FEMA officials have publicly stated significant changes are unlikely.

“This is too serious for us to mess up,” DeVlieger said. “I wouldn’t be against hiring someone to put up the best argument to make these zones appropriate.”

For Louis Becker, the dilemma is different: He said he is fortunate to have the funds needed to rebuild his Sandy-ruined home at the corner of Sindia and Battersea. He’s willing to build to FEMA’s V zone specifications, which are the most conservative, requiring first-floor elevations as high as 14 feet. But city ordinances limit his building height to 2.4 stories and count the 7 feet of required empty space beneath his planned home as a first story, an infringement on his interior living space.

“I’m at a standstill,” he said, mentioning his frequent contact with city officials in regard to his plight has given him no better hope of being in his new home before Christmas, meaning he will be displaced for more than a year.

“I can’t get the city to move forward. I’m caught in ordinance world,” he said.

Bill Martin, whose Simpson Road home had its flood-free history dating to 1946 end when Sandy dumped 30 inches of water in his house, voiced another common complaint: The slow pace at which insurance companies are paying claims.

Heading into his fourth month as a displaced homeowner, Martin said he had finally received a settlement check that was $30,000 short of the damages the property had sustained, but that his insurance adjuster had told him he’d have to wait until another 175 claims were processed before his appeal could be reviewed.

“The problem you’re speaking of, I’ve heard a lot,” DeVlieger told Martin.

Where is the voice of reason?

Joseph Palermo of Third Street pointed out that with local, state and federal bureaucracy handcuffing homeowners, the city needs to be the governmental force to make changes that accommodate taxpaying residents.

“It’s silly that when a gentleman in the room complies with one ordinance, he violates another ordinance,” Palermo said of Becker’s situation.

Palermo’s comment was prompted by a discussion on Ocean City’s own recently adopted base flood elevation plus 2 feet ordinance, which requires new construction to be built two feet above the height of a 100-year storm. Because the FEMA maps became state mandate days after City Council voted unanimously to adopt BFE+2, DeVlieger said the municipal law, like so much else at this time, is in flux.

DeVlieger said the city will need to revisit whether it will require new construction, as well as damaged properties, to be built to FEMA’s map elevations plus Ocean City’s own BFE+2. In some neighborhoods on the island, Ocean City’s BFE+2 ordinance added to FEMA’s map elevations would mean first-floor construction 17 feet above sea level. That, then, would create problems with towering staircases encroaching on setbacks, to mention just one obstacle of stacking the municipal ordinance on top of the state law, DeVlieger said.

While most of the discussion revolved around property damage, Valerie Watson said Sandy also caused psychological harm. Watson, an Upper Township resident, attended the meeting to introduce New Jersey Hope and Healing, an organization that provides emotional support to those affected by weather emergencies. The group’s first meeting will be held 6 p.m. Feb. 19 at St. John Lutheran Church, 10th Street and Central Avenue.

“This storm was a shock to us,” said Fasy, who implored those in attendance to spread the word that help is available from many sources and that there is no shame in seeking it. “It was a traumatic event. Counseling and being able to talk to someone is an important thing.

“The basic message to come away with tonight is we have got to get the word out.” DeVlieger said, circling back to his opening statement: “People are faced with a lot of challenges they’ve never faced before. Speak up. Let’s take all this positive energy and do something with it. This is about helping people. Reach out. Let us help.”

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