FREEHOLD, N.J. – Federal officials are taking steps which may help residents of the hard-hit neighborhood of North Middletown as they face potential flood insurance increases as a result of new flood maps expected to be unveiled this week.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) said that as a result of congressional inquiry and meetings with local officials from Middletown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other state and federal agencies, FEMA has agreed to implement a comprehensive study and evaluation of the East Keansburg Levee system which FEMA had previously “de-certified” for flood protection, resulting in proposed steep flood insurance hikes for homeowners. If the study recognizes the levee system as flood protection that may prevent devastating flooding as it did during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene, it could lead to reduced risk assessment and lower insurance costs.
“Thousands of residents of North Middletown are looking at the very real possibility of their flood insurance premiums skyrocketing because FEMA no longer views some levee systems as adequate flood protection,” said Smith. “But as residents there know, for more than 40 years this neighborhood has been well served by a flood management system of levees, dunes, and pumps. This unique system has been effective since its installation in the 1970s. Even during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, when much of the coast was badly flooded, the roughly 1,400 homes in North Middletown remained protected. To omit an evaluation of this levy system and a substantive analysis of any form of protection it might offer would be unfair to the residents.”
Smith sent a letter to FEMA Region II chief Jerome Hatfield on November 8 requesting the agency do a study, to which Hatfield replied that FEMA did not at the time have adequate funding.
“We are thankful that FEMA has now identified funding to undertake this important study, particularly after correspondence in which Administrator Hatfield stated that FEMA was looking to explore this option and work together with local stakeholders,” said Smith. “We hope this new study will enable FEMA to determine the effectiveness of the East Keansburg Levee system and provide them with the most comprehensive and up-to-date information as they conclude analysis of the region’s flood maps.”
According to FEMA guidelines, a levee system is a flood protection system that consists of a levee and associated structures which are constructed and operated in accordance with sound engineering practices to reduce the likelihood of flooding due to an adjacent flooding source such as a river, lake, or ocean. The level to which a levee system is determined to provide flood protection is indicated in FEMA flood maps—the more protection the levee system provides, the lower the flood risk which can result in lower premiums for homeowners.
Following Hurricane Katrina, many levees which had previously been considered adequate flood protection were “de-certified” and became “non-accredited” by FEMA because they were not seen as adequate protection from the one-percent-annual-chance flood. However, the agency has since recognized that levee systems which do not meet the regulatory accreditation requirements may still provide a measure of flood risk reduction. This levee analysis may provide evidence that more flood protection exists and thus more accurately reflect an area’s flood risk.
Flood risk is the driving force behind the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) used by the National Flood Insurance Program. Smith says FEMA officials plan to deliver the preliminary revised flood maps to county officials this week, but the maps must go through an extensive review process before taking effect. FEMA officials anticipate that any new maps—and any rate changes—will not become effective for 12 to 18 months, which provides time for study results to be taken into consideration. If the levee study shows that the levee system provides a measure of flood protection, it is hoped that homes in the North Middletown neighborhood may be re-zoned so as not to require a high amount of mandatory federal flood insurance coverage. Currently, homes in the area are assessed at a lower risk.
Last year, there were 28 levee analysis pilot projects done across the United States, however none took place in New Jersey. This soon-to-be-conducted study will use the best practices learned from the pilot projects to look at the levee system in the entire Middletown, Keansburg, Union Beach and surrounding area.
“This process will include a great deal of input from local stakeholders,” said Smith, who added that in coming weeks FEMA will be creating a Local Levee Partnership Team which will act as an advisory panel and bring local input to the process.
In his November letter to Hatfield, Smith addressed FEMA’s decision to put the North Middletown neighborhood in a flood zone in 2009, a judgment that could now mean much higher insurance rates or costly out-of-pocket bills to elevate homes. In his letter Smith said, “With flood insurance rates expected to greatly increase, residents of the North Middletown community are rightly concerned about the grave financial strain they are facing and how a hefty insurance rate hike will affect their property values.” Smith also called on FEMA to begin “properly addressing the flood zone designation for this neighborhood.”
Responding to Smith’s letter Hatfield said FEMA was looking into “a new policy that allows FEMA to consider a more refined depiction of the flooding risk for areas behind hydraulically independent components of a non-certified levee system such as the one in the neighborhood of North Middletown.” Commenting on the local flood protection system now in place in Middletown Township Hatfield said, “empirical evidence helps suggest that the system may be hydraulically significant; therefore, it may be providing some measurable level of protection for local residents on the landward side.”