Homeowners face uncertainty over flood map elevations

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ABSECON – City officials discussed the new FEMA base elevation advisory flood maps at a joint City Council-Planning Board meeting Tuesday, Feb. 12 in the Municipal Complex.

City Administrator Terry Dolan said city officials asked for the meeting to relay information, hear residents’ concerns and answer any questions they could.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued the maps in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which punished the area with record flooding last Oct. 29 in New Jersey. However, the maps had been drawn before the storm.

Some 75 to 100 people attended the meeting, Dolan said. Most of them live in the city’s flood-prone areas, which include Berkeley and Tremont avenues and Euclid Drive along the west side of Absecon Creek.

City planner Stuart Wiser gave a PowerPoint presentation that offered a technical analysis of the maps and their impact on areas in Absecon.

If approved, the maps would require homeowners who suffered more than 50 percent damage to their homes to raise their houses to the new limits, according to Mayor John Armstrong, who chaired the meeting.

Others would have to raise their homes to new requirements or face increased flood insurance premiums, he said.

If not, they would have to pay $2,000 more a year in flood insurance for every foot of elevation for which they are not in compliance with the new guidelines, he said.

“It could bankrupt some people,” Armstrong said.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Dolan said. “It’s heartbreaking to hear of the situation some of our residents are in.”

Uncertainty over the maps and their required elevation changes presents a challenge for people who are facing immediate repairs to their homes, Dolan said. Some residents still have not returned to their homes since the storm struck.

“These maps are advisory,” he said. “They are going to change. So what are people going to do in the meantime?”

FEMA is expected to finalize flood maps in 2014, he said.

The difficulty comes for homeowners who have to make repairs and wonder if they should wait or build to the proposed requirements.

“One couple has a contractor at their house and are wondering if they should continue to make repairs if they are going to have to raise their house in the future,” Dolan said.

Another family hasn’t lived in their home since Hurricane Sandy struck the area, he said. If they rebuild now, they will have to raise their home to the new elevation standards. If they wait, it is possible they may not have to raise their house by as much.

Dolan said he could sense uncertainty on the faces on the residents who attended the meeting.

“There was a great deal of uncertainty in the room,” Dolan said. “On the positive side, about 20 people spoke. Every single person learned something.”

He said he could sense that many of the people appeared as though they felt like saying, “I’m not in this alone.”

The mayor said he planned to get together with area mayors, council members and planners on Friday in Ventnor for a meeting to discuss the possibility of challenging the new requirements.

“We are lobbying our federal officials to work against these proposed radical increases in flood areas,” Armstrong said.

Some residents were shocked to find out they now live in flood-prone areas, he noted. They thought their property would never be considered as being in a flood-prone area.

Dolan said the city is requesting FEMA grants on the behalf of 19 property owners.

In addition, he said, the city has applied for FEMA money to pay for flood mitigation projects along Absecon Creek.

“Maybe if we are able to put something there, like a bulkhead, the property owners wouldn’t have to raise their homes,” he said.

But the trouble for residents is the uncertainty over if and when FEMA would approve the project, he said.

“It takes a long time to get an approval from FEMA,” he said. “It could take years.”

Meanwhile, residents are concerned over what to do now to repair their properties or prevent them from suffering flood damage, he said.

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