South Bethany flooding Oct 2015

Located between beach and bay, South Bethany is expected to flood during major storm and tidal events, which means higher flood insurance premiums. Here, flooding occurs on the west side of the sand dunes during a storm on Oct. 3, 2015.

People might feel bogged down by the jargon and graphics related to floodplain maps, but it all comes down to one thing: the cost of flood insurance and the risk associated with living in a flood zone.

The Town of South Bethany is expecting yet another change to their official floodplain designations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had rescinded the town’s maps in January, thus reverting to an earlier map. Now, they’re officially filing two Letters of Map Revision (LOMR), which will cover the whole town.

Both revisions will go through the normal regulatory process for approval, with public comments and appeals as necessary. But only the first (western or “riverine”) LOMR has been filed, with the second (eastern or “coastal”) LOMR anticipated later this autumn. The boundary between the two halves is a vertical line through town, about halfway between Route 1 and Ocean Drive.

Determining the risk

Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) are how the government shows the perceived risk of flooding hazards in any given place. The entirety of South Bethany is in the flood zone (meaning it could be underwater during the most severe storm or “1-percent chance” flooding event), which is most apparent during coastal storms.

That data is used by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to calculate the appropriate flood-insurance premium rates.

Generally, Zone AE indicates regular flooding; Zone AO indicates shallow flooding with risk of velocity; and Zone VE includes risk of wave action. The number afterward is the anticipated floodwater height, in feet. For instance, if Ocean Drive has a base flood elevation (BFE) of 12 feet, houses must be built to that elevation, or risk even higher flood-insurance premiums.

It appears that the existing (2015) map has much of the town at AE 5 or AE 6, west of Coastal Highway. The December 2020 map would keep part of the northwestern Cat Hill community at AE 5. But much of the western part of town would increase to AE 6. Most properties bordering the highway would increase to AE7. Between the highway and the coast, the strip of AO 2 will shift slightly. Properties nearest to the ocean will likely remain in the VE zone, but those elevation changes have not been announced.

Homeowners should note that the shape of these zones will change, so their household designation might not change in the same way as their neighbors’.

Maps go back and forth

South Bethany hasn’t dealt with flood maps for a few years now, but the matter has never been quite settled since FEMA proposed new maps in 2013, which were appealed, changed, questioned, revoked and reissued — and then challenged in court.

Alone, resident Ed Bintz pursued an appeal and court case regarding a 2015 Preliminary Map. The Town dropped the issue when their experts couldn’t find a strong enough argument to guarantee a courtroom success.

In September of 2019, the United States District Court agreed with Bintz that FEMA had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously and not otherwise in accordance with the law in developing the base flood elevations for South Bethany.”

That meant that the offending maps would be thrown out.

Although the Hon. Christopher C. Conner found it reasonable for FEMA to rely on historical storm damage in selecting non-standard methodology (based on the expertise of local and state officials), he also decided that FEMA’s administrative record failed to explain why it used outdated storm data and its selection of non-standard methods.

So the maps were rescinded in January of 2020.

Back to the present

South Bethany is currently covered by Flood Insurance Rate Maps 10005C0514K and -0518K, which were issued in March 2015.

Officially, the entire FIRMs will not be reissued, but the LOMR information will be housed online and with South Bethany Town Hall. FEMA will not be sending each individual homeowner a notification.

The deadline for appeal will be around Nov. 17 (90 days after the second public notification, which was published in the Aug. 20 issue of the Delaware State News). The LOMR will become official on Dec. 18 (or later, if necessary to resolve any outstanding appeals).

Any request for reconsideration must be based on scientific or technical data, but the Town can also submit comments on the maps. Right now, the Town of South Bethany is keeping a wary eye on the current LOMR and upcoming LOMR. They’ve created a FEMA Ad Hoc Committee, which has met twice since August.

“The goal of this committee is to evaluate what that means to the Town and see if there’s strategies or questions we should raise to go back to FEMA — and make any recommendations to town council for action,” said Chairperson Randall “Randy” Bartholomew. “This committee and members on it will not deal directly with FEMA. All correspondence will go through the town staff or mayor directly.”

The committee will request some follow-up to their first round of questions to FEMA. According to town officials, the methodology for the first LOMR hasn’t changed, but for the upcoming second LOMR, FEMA selected a “modified retreat methodology” that “most accurately reflects South Bethany’s coastal storms (used 2012 Sandy and 2016 Nor’easter). It also includes the presence of the dune,” including the nourishment of beaches, which typically occurs every three years (including this coming autumn) in town.

The methodology is not entirely consistent with neighboring towns.

“We’re one coast and one unit. It’s not like we’ve got some mountain between us that would cause a difference in topography. … It makes no sense” for them to use different methodologies, said Committee Member Maria Vershel.

The next step

The Town is considering whether to ask FEMA representatives to do a virtual public information session to provide more information.

Most importantly, property owners should contact their flood insurance agents to ask how the proposed changes could impact them. Insurance rates vary from under $1,000 to more than $10,000 annually, on either side of the town.

“At this point, no one has really raised any concerns, and when I just talk to various neighbors throughout the town, they say … they kind of expected this to happen, and not much reaction one way or the other,” Bartholomew said.

For more information:

Staff Reporter

A staff member for 10 years, through mid-2021, Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment and more. An IRHS and Washington College alum, she has rappelled, assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.