Q&A: A Look at Flood Maps and What They Mean in New Jersey

April 15, 2013

Earlier in April, the federal government announced that it would not give grants to repair homes badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy unless the owners agreed to make sure they are in compliance with new advisory flood maps.

In New Jersey, the policy will not change much because the state government has already said that it will not approve rebuilding the most damaged homes unless they comply with the maps.

Following is a look, in question-and-answer form, at what the flood maps mean to homeowners in coastal areas.

Q. What are the maps?

A. The Federal Emergency Management Agency rolled out new “advisory” maps in December. Based on data gathered before Superstorm Sandy, the maps show that the risk of flooding is worse than believed when the current maps came out in the 1980s. That’s without taking into account projections that sea level will continue to rise at an accelerating rate.

High-water marks in coastal areas from major storms, the kind expected once every 100 years, could be 1 to 5 feet higher than previously expected.

FEMA now says 268,000 properties are at risk of damage from 100-year coastal flooding, compared with 234,000 properties previously considered to be in the line of severe floods

In addition to finding water levels could be higher, the maps also expand the area where forceful waves are considered a risk. Many people in shore communities think the maps call for changes that are too costly; some environmentalists worry that they will be outdated quickly because they do not account for accelerating sea-level rise.

Q: How are the maps used?

A: FEMA’s final maps, which are to be used to set premiums for the National Flood Insurance Program, are planned to be unveiled later this year and adopted next year. The advisory maps are a first look at how they might end up as guidance for those deciding how to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy.

Both the state and federal government are basing some policies on them. Both levels of government are using them to try to force people in flood zones to build their homes higher.

Q: So does that mean if your home was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, do you have to elevate it further?

A: It depends on where it is, how much damage was done and when repairs are made.

Under a new state regulation, properties that were substantially damaged — that is, post-storm repairs would cost more than half the value of the property — must be raised to 1 foot above the best-available flood level to receive state coastal flood zone permits.

The best available maps, for now, are the advisory maps. The same rules apply to businesses, though they can demonstrate that they would be better served by “wet floodproofing,” which allows water to enter the structure but mitigates the damage it can cause.

And the federal government announced earlier this month that federal rebuilding grants will only go to owners of substantially damaged properties who comply with the advisory maps by having the structures 1 foot above the flood levels, or _ if that’s not possible _ at least raising furnaces and other utilities to that level, or insulating them from floodwaters.

Q. What will change when the final flood maps are issued?

A: New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said he believes that fewer properties will be included in the map as vulnerable to wave action and he’s advising homeowners to wait to see the final map.

FEMA spokeswoman Robin Smith said she does not know that the final maps will be more lax. However they look when they’re released, there will be a public comment period before they are adopted.

Q. What about people whose homes were not substantially damaged by Sandy but who live in coastal flood zones? Should they raise their homes, too?

A. DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said now is a good time to consider it, in part because the National Flood Insurance Program premiums are expected to rise significantly for properties that do not meet new elevation requirements.

Q. How much does it cost to raise a home?

A. Builders say it varies widely, depending on the home and how high it needs to go. Some older, smaller homes could be raised for $30,000 or less.

Q. Can homeowners get government help to pay for raising houses?

A. Yes. Those covered by the National Flood Insurance Program already have a policy benefit of up to $30,000 to comply with new regulations.

Also, New Jersey state plans to use a portion of its federal disaster relief money to give homeowners grants of up to $150,000 to pay for repairs not covered by insurance or other programs. The cost of meeting new standards qualifies. The state expects to start distributing that money sometime in April.

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