During Superstorm Sandy, George Kasimos watched the lagoon outside his Toms River home drop four feet. Then he watched it come flooding back.
“All of a sudden the water rose two feet, and we all knew there was a problem,” Kasimos said while standing amid a construction zone in his living room. “Actually, some of the neighbors knew and left.”
Eighteen inches of water flooded the first floor of his house, but he says he was the first homeowner on the block with a dumpster after the storm, determined to rebuild. Then his neighbor came over and showed him some new flood maps and a sheet with flood insurance rate information.
“I thought I was on that show Punk'd, to be honest,” he said, “I just didn’t believe it.”
Kasimos estimates that if he doesn’t raise his home four feet, his flood insurance will go from $1,000 per year to $15,000 per year.
As summer approaches, the Jersey Shore is in a rush to rebuild from Sandy, to get back to normal and be open for summer tourists. But many homeowners are feeling stuck and frustrated, not knowing if or how they should rebuild. Much of that confusion comes from flood maps that were actually meant to help answer some of the very questions they’ve wound up complicating.
“We’d have been in our house in January,” said Kasimos. “But unfortunately we had to stop [rebuilding] for a couple months so we can get some answers as to are we going rebuild, are we going to raise, or are we going to walk away from our homes because we cannot afford the flood insurance?”
Kasimos says his questions have arisen from new Advisory Base Flood Elevation maps that the Federal Emergency Management Agency released after Sandy. Once finalized, they’ll be used to set flood insurance rates.
On these new maps, Kasimos is now in what’s called a Velocity Zone, a V-zone, meaning FEMA modeling shows that in a 100-year storm, waves three feet or higher would hit his home. He’s supposed to elevate his house at least four feet (elevation requirements vary depending on the location) and put it on pilings. That means lifting the house off its foundation, moving it out of the way, and sinking poles into the ground on top of which his house would sit.
However, Kasimos believes his home should be in an A-zone — at risk for flooding but not the extra damage of waves. In an A-zone, he would not be mandated to use pilings, which would considerably limit the expense of elevating.
“In an A-zone, [elevating] cost about $50,000 for an average home and our home,” he said. “For a V-zone, it’s about $150,000. That is a $100,000 price difference in raising our home.”
Unhappy with his designation, Kasimos started a group on Facebook called Stop FEMA Now to call attention to the problems he sees with the maps. It has over 3,200 members.
“We do anticipate the V-Zone in certain areas becoming smaller,” said Bill McDonnell, who oversees Sandy response and mitigation projects in New Jersey for FEMA.
When Sandy hit the East Coast in October of last year, FEMA was already two years into a project to update these flood maps, which in some areas dated back to the 1980s.
It generally takes between three and five years to update flood maps because of the extensive land surveys and computer modeling required. The maps include data from roughly 100 past storms, as well as hypothetical storms that have not yet occurred.
McDonnell said FEMA decided to release an early version of the maps after the storm, so that people could have the most recent data available to decide how to rebuild.
“It is an advisory product,” he said. “It’s just out there for informational purposes and then the state of New Jersey adopted it as a land use policy, so that if people were going to rebuild, they have to rebuild to that standard.”
This is the source of many homeowners’ confusion: the advisory maps became the standard for rebuilding homes that had substantial damage. Homeowners anxious to rebuild have to decide if they think their zoning might change when the next version of the maps, which will include more complete data, is released this summer.
These updated maps will take into account modeling of how waves move over land as they interact with obstacles, such as homes and vegetation.
It’s not that the current maps are inaccurate as much as they are incomplete, explained Dr. Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College just outside Atlantic City.
Citing the example of Avalon, Dr. Farrell pointed to the FEMA advisory map on his computer screen, in which the V-Zone reaches inland from the bay past roughly seven rows of houses.
“There’s no way a bay wave can be carried that far inland,” he said.
Dr. Farrell also believes the next round of maps should take into consideration the difference in power of a wave on the bay versus the ocean. These waves were treated the same in the advisory maps, despite that “a bay wave has the impact force of a small car compared to a Mack truck on the ocean side.”
Brick Township Mayor Stephen Acropolis said many of his constituents are in flux.
“In Brick, there were about 400 homes that were Velocity-Zone homes prior to the storm,” he said. “Most of those homes are on the barrier island. Now there are over 4,000. That is way too many homes in the Velocity Zone.”
Mayor Acropolis thinks only about 1,000 home should be in the V-Zone. So for now, he’s counseling people unsure if their status will change to hold off on elevating.
“If you’re in a marginal V-zone, do you want to make the decision to knock down your house now because you know you’ve got to put it on pilings when you may go back to an A-Zone and be able to just raise it and put it on a foundation?”
But even waiting can have a cost. People need to rebuild somehow, to begin getting their lives back together.
For George Kasimos in Toms River, that means fixing parts of his property — his deck, stairs, and siding — that says he’ll have to tear up when he eventually elevates.
FEMA’s McDonnell understands that people want definitive answers. He expects to start releasing a new version of the maps county-by-county, perhaps as early as June. Homeowners with substantial damage have four years to become compliant with the new standards and elevations; insurance rates won’t be calculated off the new maps until they’ve been finalized after a period of public review and commenting.