Since shortly after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the Jersey shore last October, homeowners up and down the coast have agonized over whether to raise their homes to survive future storms.
And when the federal government issued a revised set of preliminary flood maps last December, placing many more homes in hazardous designations, homeowners were even more confused, especially when New Jersey adopted those tough new maps as its rebuilding standard in January.
But Gov. Chris Christie said Thursday he expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency to "significantly" scale back those maps, possibly as soon as a few months from now. He made his comments at a town hall meeting in Manasquan, a low-lying, flood-prone community that saw severe damage from Sandy.
"Every indication I'm getting from FEMA is the next set of maps is going to be backed off significantly," he said. "We're getting some body language from FEMA (saying) 'Yes, we probably overdid it the first time around.' "I'm confident the maps are going to be changed. The only thing I'm not confident about is when.
"It's going to be a few more months until we get new maps from FEMA," Christie said. "I suspect the new maps are going to be much less aggressive."
Even though he adopted the FEMA standards in January, Christie told the crowd Thursday, "We're not accepting them. We want to make sure everyone's put in the appropriate spot."
The new maps, based on scientific studies conducted before Sandy hit, placed many more homes in hazard zones, including "velocity zones" where properties are considered to be at risk from the kinetic force of 3-foot waves. Many homeowners along bay fronts, creeks or even marshes which have never seen a wave, much less been hit by one, have suddenly found themselves included in the so-called "V-zones" that once were reserved largely for homes right on the ocean.
The new designation comes at a steep price: homes in those newly hazardous zones will be required to elevate their homes or else pay flood insurance rates up to 10 times what they are paying now. That uncertainty has paralyzed many rebuilding decisions, and Christie's prediction did little to dissipate it.
Acknowledging he doesn't ``want folks to be in suspended animation,'' Christie said his administration and the New Jersey congressional delegation will fight to have the maps re-done more accurately.
A FEMA spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Christie's assertion. But the head of FEMA, Craig Fugate, testified at a congressional hearing Wednesday in Washington that the maps may very well be changed over the next 16 months. When asked by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, whether the zone designations will stay the same "for every household" when the maps are finalized, Fugate responded, ``I cannot say that for every household.''
Many of the speakers at Thursday's town hall approached Christie with technical questions about rebuilding. Many asked him for help navigating the thicket of government and state aid programs available to Sandy victims, and others complained about insurance companies dragging their feet or wrongly trying to deny claims.
The cost of raising a house can be between $30,000 and $60,000. While some federal aid is available to defray those costs, it won't cover all of it. Supplemental state aid could be used as well.
Homeowners who decide to raise their houses now, only to see their flood zone danger rating reduced by new maps, should not despair, the governor said. They should be in line for substantial savings on flood insurance premiums from having done the elevation work.