FEMA lowers flood elevations in Fenwick Island

Fenwick Island streets and structures were inundated with water during Hurricane Sandy, but updates to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps in the near future could actually lower the flood elevations of many properties in the town. That could mean property owners could actually build closer to the ground than they do now.

Efforts to make the flood maps more accurately reflect real flooding risk meant FEMA was already working on updating them, for the first time in decades, prior to Sandy, with the revisions and research started in the fall of 2009.

The draft maps, which were recently released to the Town, reduce the flood elevation by about 2 feet in some of the town’s bayside and commercial area, while oceanfront properties have had their flood elevation reduced by about three feet, explained Councilman Bill Weistling at the council’s June 28 meeting.

Weistling and town building official Pat Schuchman had met with FEMA officials on June 19 to discuss the new digital Flood Insurance Rate Map panels and the new Flood Insurance study, which can be found online at www.rampp-team.com/de.htm.

“Oceanfront houses, on average, will be allowed to build three and a half feet lower than what they are now, and most of the bayside area, and especially along the highway, they are going to be allowed to build two feet lower,” he explained.

“I don’t know why they are lowering it, rather than raising it... With FEMA, it is how they word certain things. With a crawlspace, you can’t go down that far and yet, with a garage, you could. It’s complicated.”

The Town has 90 days to appeal the maps after receiving them, but Weistling emphasized that they can’t appeal them just because they don’t like the change.

“We can appeal, but we can’t appeal them on feelings alone. We have to have the data to back it up,” he explained last Friday. If the Town does appeal, DNREC and FEMA would also have to accept such a revision.

Alternatively, he said, the Town could simply accept the new maps but consider the option of “freeboarding” — setting its own rules for building elevation, at whatever minimum height it deems appropriate. The Town would get credit for freeboarding under the Community Rating System program, which offers discounts on property insurance if property owners manage risks.

Weistling said DNREC emphasizes freeboarding as a response to the updated maps, recommending that towns use minimum building heights of at least 12 to 18 inches above the FEMA flood map levels.

A preliminary element of dealing with the updated maps is simple corrections, and at the June 28 council meeting, the council approved on a 5-0 vote Schuchman sending minor changes regarding street names to FEMA. Such changes must be sent to FEMA by July 19.

“I can’t believe, with all we went through with the 911 street changes, that the street names here are not only misnamed but also missing,” said Councilwoman Vicki Carmean.

Weistling said he was having problems accepting that FEMA had reduced the flood elevations.

“With all the problems up the coast, the costs of that, they’re going to have to raise rates,” he said. “I would have done just the opposite and raised the flood elevation.”

He suggested the council have at least one workshop on the updated maps and discuss further whether the Town should appeal the new designations or simply raise its minimum building levels above the FEMA requirements. Once approved, the maps would go into effect in June of 2014, according to Schuchman.

Point reporter Monica Scott contributed to this story.