The impetus behind releasing its advisory flood maps soon after Hurricane Sandy was simply to aid in the state's disaster recovery, a Federal Emergency Management Agency risk analyst said Friday, noting that they still remain subject to change prior to their official adoption into the National Flood Insurance Program.
Discussion about the NFIP as well as the Advisory Base Flood Elevation maps was made during a FEMA conference call late Friday morning and seemed to conflict with Gov. Chris Christie's hurried effort to see the maps adopted as New Jersey's new standard.
Doug Bellomo, director of FEMA's Risk Analysis Division, said the agency used the best available scientific data to develop the maps, and while he's confident that they're capable of accurately predicting wave action along open water areas - most notably those along the oceanfront - there's some doubt that they're as accurate when it comes to predicting surges in bays and tidal waterways.
The jury is still out as to what changes could be made to the maps, he said, but he wouldn't rule any out.
Hurricane Sandy caused massive destruction along New Jersey's barrier islands, and while damage was considerable in some mainland shore communities, the advisory flood maps fail to accurately represent wave action during a once-a-century-storm, like Sandy.
Concerns have been raised, largely at the local level, that the flood maps are too broad, incorporating areas that weren't impacted by flooding during Sandy, and too severe, moving residences into either the A or V Zone.
In a town hall in Manasquan, Christie said he believed the flood maps were too aggressive, saying he believed they would be scaled back before becoming official. Just days later, Christie's administration put its support behind the advisory maps by submitting an adoption package.
The confusing process has caused frustration for many of the state's residences who are still rebuilding five months after Sandy struck. Though FEMA has and continues to stress that its flood maps are still just advisory ones, their adoption was necessary to allow residents with flood insurance to apply for Increased Cost of Compliance funding to raise their homes. Adoption was also necessary to eliminate the need for Department of Environmental Protection permitting, which is often required in home elevation projects.
The advisory maps were first released in December and recommend that residents in flood zones in 10 counties and 194 communities raise their homes between 1 and 5 feet on average.
Many residents now in an A or V Zone - an A Zone is described as a high-hazard area while the more severe V Zone is an area susceptible to wave action - are facing the prospect of having to elevate their homes or else face insurance premiums that could near or exceed $30,000 if they find themselves four feet below the flood elevation. With the cost of home elevation being prohibitive in itself, residents are waiting, futilely perhaps, to see if their zone changes or if they're removed altogether.
During the same conference call, Edward Connor, deputy associate administrator for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, said new maps, as well as the adjustment to the NFIP stems from 2012's Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. The purpose of the Congress-backed bill was to help the NFIP become more sustainable and to eliminate some subsidies for at-risk properties.
The result is that New Jersey residents new to flood zones will face the highest insurance premiums possible.
Bellomo said releasing the advisory maps - the official flood maps have not been updated in 25 years - gave residents an idea of the hazards they potentially face by providing them access to the best available data. Of course, the storm data used in developing the maps does not include Sandy, the very storm the maps are designed to warn against.
Still, adjustments could be made. FEMA's preliminary and updated flood maps will be released in August, another step in a process that could take until 2015 before the maps become official. Until then, Bellomo said FEMA will follow its standard map updating process, which includes taking testimony and data provided by the public, state, and local municipalities into account.