Todd B. Bates, The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. -- New federal flood maps approved Thursday that will govern rebuilding in the state following superstorm Sandy leaves many residents with a tough choice: Go higher now or pay more later.
The new guidelines will force homeowners in flood zones to spend tens of thousands of dollars to raise their houses now or pay exorbitant premiums of up to $31,000 a year for flood insurance later.
"This rule protects the public and our residents by ensuring that the Jersey Shore and our coastal communities will be reconstructed smarter and more resilient," Gov. Chris Christie said in announcing the maps, which were recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to municipalities last month.
Some local officials have voiced concerns about the maps, including their accuracy.
The governor said he did not want to wait for FEMA to adopt new maps within the next two years and leave property owners unsure about what rebuilding standards to follow.
He cited the example of a property in an "A" flood zone that is now in a "V zone" (where breaking waves are possible) under the new maps. The owner will eventually face flood insurance premiums of up to $31,000 a year if he does not elevate a home. But the owner would pay $7,000 a year if he rebuilds to the now-recommended elevation or $3,500 a year if he rebuilds 2 feet higher than that.
"Folks have to make decisions, and some of them are hard decisions," Christie said.
The governor's announcement came nearly three months after Sandy came ashore south of Atlantic City on Oct. 29, with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph. The megastorm killed 40 people in New Jersey and spawned record coastal flooding. It damaged or destroyed more than 122,000 homes and other structures in New Jersey. The state is seeking billions of dollars from the federal government for rebuilding.
"Folks have to make decisions, and some of them are hard decisions."
- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Christie stressed that the guidelines don't force anyone to raise their homes. But he laid out a stark choice: do the elevations called for under the FEMA maps or pay through the nose for flood insurance each year.
"If you choose not to, you'll have substantially higher flood insurance costs, which could be ... seven or eight times what you pay now," he said at a news conference in Seaside Heights.. "There's going to have to be some hard decisions made. But for the shore as a whole, I think that's the right decision to make."
The FEMA maps show that water levels could rise 1 to 5 feet higher than expected in most flood zone areas under previous maps, a FEMA official has said.
The New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management, a nonprofit group of flood experts, has urged municipalities to adopt the new maps.
Towns should consider adding 2 feet of "freeboard" (leading to buildings that are 2 feet higher) above the ABFE elevations, according to the group. The costs are usually 0.25 percent to 1.5 percent for each additional foot of height, according to the group.
John A. Miller, the group's legislative committee chairman, said the group "backs the Governor's decision today, especially in light of the repetitive major flooding that New Jersey has been experiencing in the last eight years."
The group agrees with Christie that using the maps "will save (people) a great deal in flood insurance premiums; and that most importantly, the Governor's actions will save lives and ensure less damage in future storms," Miller said in an email, noting that he had not read the emergency rule.
But Toms River Business Administrator Paul J. Shives said this week the maps have "serious errors."
The maps are a "problem for Toms River and we've made that known, reached out to FEMA and also to the Governor's Office," Shives said. "It really challenges residents at a point in time they don't need it."
Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club's New Jersey Chapter, said Christie's emergency rules didn't go far enough.
"Flood elevations are going up, not down," said Tittel, who also raised concerns about streamlined permitting and the need to protect against sea-level rise.
Christie said he thinks this is "what we need to do to build a 21st Century Jersey Shore. We don't want to go through this again."
He also thinks there are very few places at the Jersey Shore that couldn't be rebuilt, if appropriate standards are used and dune systems with appropriate protections are built.
"We're trying to keep the Shore affordable" for everyone, he said.
According to FEMA, Sandy and sea-level rise were not included in the analysis that led to the ABFE maps, but the maps take into account storms similar to Sandy.
FEMA is working on new flood insurance rate maps, and the preliminary versions will come out around August, according to Chris McKniff, a FEMA spokesman.
That will kick off a regulatory process that can last a year to 18 months, according to McKniff. Comments will be accepted, appeals heard and the maps governing flood insurance rates will be adopted around mid-to-late 2014.
"The higher you build, the less your insurance premiums will be going down the road. So we do encourage people to build higher," McKniff.
According to Christie's statement, the Advisory Base Flood Elevations could change or become lower.
(Contributing: The Associated Press, Gannett Washington Bureau and Asbury Park Press archives)
The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press