FEMA draws a crowd at South Bethany maps meeting

South Bethany Town Hall may never have seemed so small when 100 people tried to fit inside for a public meeting about the future of local flood mapping. Most of them wanted to know exactly why their flood-risk designation changed, and what they can do about it.

After planning to lower some flood elevations in South Bethany, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did new analysis, triggered by a council member’s concerns, which led to an even higher flood zone than in the first place.

This June 12 meeting replaced the regularly scheduled town council meeting. It was meant as a dialogue between people and government, not an appeal.

“This is not a negotiating meeting,” said Mayor Pat Voveris. “This is not a meeting for appeals. This is a meeting to hear what they have to say.”

South Bethany is currently operating under the previous 2005 FIRM (Flood Insurance Rate Map), although Sussex County’s new FIRM was enacted in March. FEMA is repeating the county-wide process on a smaller scale within South Bethany, after an outcry from residents, and the council, too.

But new scientific analysis is the only thing that will change FEMA’s mind.

“Something comparable to what we’ve done,” said Jon Janowicz of FEMA. “We’ll share everything we’ve done with you. … Find something wrong with what we’ve done … or something superior in its presentation.

All of the Army Corps of Engineers reports are online at R3coastal.com.

FEMA will send a flood hazard determination notice to the Federal Register in mid-July, with an estimated publication there and in two area newspapers around September.

That would trigger the official appeals period, which would run from autumn to early 2016.

After considering all appeals, FEMA could issue a Final Letter of Recommendation in spring of 2016. The new maps would then be effective in the fall of 2016.

This is a very tentative timeline.

To map a floodplain…

During the regular map revision process, FEMA had updated information that showed the oceanfront had a decreased risk of flood damage, with a VE-10 designation.

But then, “We received new, better scientific data that showed that the risk actually increased,” said Peter Herrick Jr. of FEMA Region 3. “The area changes over time,” he said, even if people don’t physically see it.

“FEMA’s main goal here is to reflect the risk as much as possible. They don’t change BFE [base flood elevation] lightly. There was a lot of review of this analysis,” said Christine Worley of Risk Assessment, Mapping & Planning Partners (RAMPP), which performed the new wave and erosion analyses.

Pulling data from different sources, FEMA studies topography, storm surge, erosion and wave patterns and more.

Terrain data from more than 30 years ago was not very detailed.

“Technology has changed. The models that we’re using now are much better, much more accurate,” Worley said.

The 2005 changes were mostly based on analysis from the 1980s, some as early as 1981. The 2015 changes came from data ranging from 2005 to 2012.

FEMA officials received “new data,” including surveyed elevation data from Ocean Drive and Route 1, collected in 2013 and 2014; historic photographs of storm damage; beach elevation profiles surveyed by the Army Corps; and more.

But it wasn’t just historic newspaper articles recounting storm damage (the scientific validity of which some citizens debated).

For example, erosion analysis of the dunes was revised to show that a sharper slope forms during erosion, which can cause dramatic wave run-up.

So, most areas increased from the 2005 map to the proposed one. Portions of the west increased from 5 to 6 feet in the AE zone, due to the bays.

Beachfront houses on Ocean Drive were increased from VE-12 to VE-13 (a particularly painful blow for homeowners, considering FEMA had planned to decrease that area’s designation).

Maps are found online at http://maps.riskmap3.com/DE/Sussex. People can create a profile for their individual property, then compare the current and proposed maps.

South Bethany has the highest oceanfront numbers, although parts of North Bethany were also moved to VE-13. Most surrounding areas were placed at 10 or 12 feet.

“FEMA’s goal is always to reflect the most accurate information,” Worley said. “The news article was just one piece of information that we received.”

“Most of the oceanfront communities did receive revisions to their maps based on concerns that were expressed,” clarified Mike Powell, of Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control. “The Town of Fenwick Island contacted FEMA with concerns about early revisions of the maps that would have removed part of Bunting Avenue from the flood plain [as did Dewey Beach]. This idea that the surrounding communities didn’t get scrutiny … or comment, or that the risk was understated is not true.”

Why don’t the dunes count?

South Bethany’s sand dunes have been a sore spot for residents. Although the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) constructed 16-foot dunes in 2008, FEMA’s analysis didn’t consider dunes as protection for the town.

Besides a three-year nourishment cycle to rebuild dunes to original specifications, South Bethany received several special refills after storms including Nor’Ida and Hurricane Sandy, which typically returns them to pre-storm conditions.

However, the dunes are sacrificial by design, said Jason Miller, chief of Flood Plain Management Services Branch of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia.

Dunes aren’t permanent structures, so they have the potential for reduced protection over time, especially if Congress does not continue funding maintenance of the project. Miller couldn’t say if a 2016 replenishment has been officially funded yet.

USACE’s design is built in the most economically beneficial way, not specifically to protect in a 50- or 100-year storm event.

Plus, South Bethany’s dune hasn’t been around very long, and it doesn’t show the stability and long-standing vegetation FEMA wants, Miller said.

“It’s not common that FEMA will use the nourished dunes in the beach profiles in coastal analysis,” Worley said later.

She said the dunes of Hilton Head, N.C., might be a rare exception to that.

Paying for insurance

Insurance specialist Rich Sobota (FEMA, NFIP) said he was disappointed that there were no insurance agents in the room that evening.

“Every single one of your insurance agents should be your best friend and most knowledgeable source of information … because after I’m done, I’ll be gone, but they’ll still be here,” said Sobota.

If a house exceeds its BFE, the owner will get a discount on their flood insurance.

“When FEMA changes the map and you wind up in a higher risk zone than you were in, what happens to you? It depends,” Sobota said.

Typically people can be “grandfathered in.” Pre-FIRM structures that have had continuous insurance coverage can pass that on to subsequent property owners (in South Bethany, the first FIRM was written in 1971). Someone who built later “is grandfathered into that map because that structure was built in compliance and continues to be [until it is substantially improved or damaged]. Then all bets are off.”

He gave some history of the program that currently enforces 5.3 million flood insurance policies.

Ultimately, NFIP saves the country money by reducing pure disaster relief efforts. When NFIP had a shortfall, it borrowed from the U.S. Treasury, always paying back those funds with interest. But with Hurricanes Katrina, “We got blown out of the water,” paying out more money than in the program’s 37-year history, Sobota said.

And that was before Hurricane Sandy arrived. Now, policy holders are paying an extra fee, which will slowly take the place of subsidies. Sobota clarified that no tax dollars pay for existing subsidies. Any shortfall is paid for by loans from the U.S. Treasury.

How to make an appeal

Making an appeal is not just a matter of writing an opinion letter.

“We have to have scientific data to show that the map is not correct, [or] that we applied what we have in error, or that you have superior data that you can give us,” said Dave Bollinger of FEMA.

Residents would submit their appeal to the Town of South Bethany, which will forward to FEMA.

The type of consultants they may need depends on what type of information they want to challenge. Different engineers analyze storm surge, topography, beach profiles and so forth. But that could get expensive, and the data would cover a chunk of town.

Even after the entire process ends around 2016 with a final determination, people can still request to pull individual homes out of the floodplain. A Letter of Map Change may let people prove their individual house is not located in the floodplain. FEMA could change the zone designation for that individual property.

Brad Gough attended the meeting to see the maps for himself. He has no mortgage on his house at Elizabeth Way, which he finished in 2004, so he’s never purchased flood insurance, figuring his insurance savings will pay for any potential damage.

But he’s still thinking about finances and potentially reduced property values.

“If you were going to buy a house, would you buy a house in the floodplain or out of the floodplain?” Gough mused. “It just went the wrong way for me, for all of us.”

He said he personally saw floodwater come up the road for the first time during Hurricane Sandy. (FEMA officials said Sandy wasn’t even a “1 percent” storm when it hit Delaware.)

His neighbors, David and Jutta Dunaway didn’t really think there were any surprises at the meeting, but they’re already thinking of the next step, which may be the Letter of Map Change.