Homeowners in Salem, Cumberland, and Middlesex counties are the latest residents to learn their fates on revised FEMA maps that model the risk of flooding along the New Jersey Shore.
For most people, these maps bring good news – many homeowners have been moved to less-risky zones and therefore may not have to elevate their homes or make other costly changes.
But in very rare cases, the risk rating has gone the other way.
When the agency began releasing the revised maps last month, attorney Ken Wilbur logged on to the FEMA website.
“I put in my address on the map and I was stunned,” Wilbur said.
His vacation home in Manasquan moved from an A-zone, where it's recommended he jack up his home ten feet above sea level, to a V-zone, where he’s deemed to be at risk for flooding plus damage from three-foot-high waves. FEMA now recommends that his home should be elevated 14 feet above sea level and placed atop expensive pilings. Not complying with these recommendations means his annual flood insurance bill could climb to tens of thousands of dollars.
“I didn't think that was possible under the ground rules they had given,” said Wilbur. “That the idea of the revised maps was to dial back the V-zones.”
Wilbur rebuilt his home based on flood plain maps that FEMA released in December. Those maps were a work in progress – rough drafts – meant to give homeowners a sense of the new requirements that are now being released. For homes with damage totaling more than half their value, the state mandated that homeowners rebuild in compliance with those December maps.
Wilbur said his understanding from FEMA and the state as that those advisory maps were the worst-case scenario, that the fearsome V-zones wouldn't get any bigger and likely would shrink. He felt confident he could rebuild based on their guidelines.
“I rebuilt and it got worse,” he said. “If it stays this way, quite frankly, I don't know what I'm going to do.”
Compared to many homeowners on the shore, Wilbur is very far along in the rebuilding process. After Superstorm Sandy, he replaced the home’s damaged beige exterior with new sapphire blue siding and built retaining walls to allow newly replaced flood vents to function properly (they were previously below ground and non-functional). He hoisted his air conditioning unit onto a new wood platform ten feet up in the air and installed new flooring and drywall on the first floor.
But he’s recently come to regret some of that progress and the money he spent repairing his home.
“I don't know that I would have put $100,000 into this house the way it is now, if I had known that I was going to have to lift it up to a V-zone,” he said. While his insurance covered $80,000, much of that work was unnecessary or will have to be redone if he chooses to elevate his home, which is in itself a very expensive process.
FEMA's Bill McDonnell says much of the agency's efforts after releasing the December maps were spent reassuring upset homeowners, especially those along the bay who didn't think they should be in V-zones. To calm them, the agency explained that the V-zones would likely decrease in size with the revisions, as the December maps didn't include all the needed data and modeling.
“But we also messaged that there is a small probability that we may see an increase in certain areas once the modeling is complete,” said McDonnell, the mitigation branch director in New Jersey. “That message didn't come across as clear because it wasn't impacting as many people because they just wanted to see the decrease in the V-zone.”
To be clear, the V-zones did shrink substantially in most areas. They are 80 percent smaller in Atlantic County. In Monmouth County, where Wilbur’s home is located, there was a net decrease of 46 percent.
But in very rare cases along the coast, the V-zones did grow, largely because the December maps didn't include modeling of how waves move over land or information on coastline and dune erosion.
“That erosion of those primary frontal dunes, after it was analyzed, increased certain areas,” said McDonnell. “So it was showing that the existing dunes were not showing as much protection as we estimated [in December].”
FEMA estimates this affects less than one percent of New Jersey's coastal flood plain area — meaning Ken Wilbur is truly a special case.
It’s the nature of maps that lines have to be drawn somewhere. FEMA says the placement of its zoning borders are based on science, data, and modeling, though the agency does not comment on individual cases and therefore could not offer a specific explanation of Wilbur's zoning.
Wilbur disagrees with the science that says he should be a V-zone and he wishes the maps would take economics into the account as well, such as the cost of raising his home and the cost of flood insurance if he doesn't.
The uniqueness of his situation only makes it harder for him to understand.
“As we're standing here on my driveway, I can see 40 feet from me, five houses that are in A-zones,” said Wilbur. “They're at exactly the same elevation above sea level that I'm at.”