2013-06-14 / Front Page

FEMA Flip Flops

(Because FEMA is so exasperating we again take to the front page for our editorial)

The Wave ran a front page headline in April regarding FEMA and Flood Maps. The bold letters across the page shouted: Great News! Maybe.

We were right to add “Maybe” because don’t look now, FEMA has thrown Rockaway another curveball. FEMA has issued new flood maps which casts a new dark cloud over homeowners and businesses.

Here’s the simple history of FEMA and its recent maps. In January FEMA released the ABFE maps which indicated most of Rockaway would be in a costly “A Zone.” It was even worse for Breezy Point and Broad Channel. Those towns were being slammed with a “V Zone” designation.

In early March, FEMA Regional Supervisor Mike Byrne came to The Wave office and said, “I wish I had good news, but I don’t.”

Soon thereafter, The Wave, for the first time in its 120 year history, put its editorial “Read This!” on the front page. The editorial spelled out what kind of doom the area faced if such flood maps and their accompanying flood insurance premiums were allowed to fall on Rockaway. Readers of The Wave responded by calling elected officials and getting educated on this threatening matter. Many residents were astonished that all of Rockaway’s elected officials had voted in favor of the Biggert Waters Act which allows for home insurance premiums to cost between $10,000 and $30,000 per year. Each of the electeds soon admitted that they had no idea the Yes vote would put many homeowners in economic peril.

After the uproar caused by The Wave, government officials began looking for ways to battle the FEMA maps. City experts and scientists contested FEMA findings; Congressman Meeks co-sponsored a bill to extend and relax insurance premium hikes.

In April, it seemed like the outcry had beneficial effects. FEMA issued a “Congressional Advisory” – a letter telling members of congress that changes were coming to the maps they had issued in January.

It looked like great news. In short, Breezy Point and Broad Channel were being moved from V Zones to A Zones and elevation requirements would be eased. Other neighborhoods were being moved from high-risk A Zone to low-risk, X Zones.

Byrne, the FEMA regional supervisor, who previously said he wished he had good news but didn’t called The Wave precisely because this time he did have good news: Rockaway maps were being revised in a positive way. The Wave followed that call by printing, word for word, the Congressional Advisory regarding the revisions.

And then a confident Senator Schumer paid a visit to The Wave and said things “look good. Most of Rockaway will be in the X Zone. And we’ll still have to fight for those who are in the A Zone.”

Given the advisory, the call from Byrne and the visit from Schumer, The Wave and many peninsula residents were optimistic about a sensible solution to flood insurance costs.

And then new maps were issued this past Monday. To a significant degree, the new maps do not reflect what was stated in the Congressional Advisory. Even Senator Schumer is calling the new maps “ a mixed bag.”

In the April Congressional Advisory, FEMA released bullet points about what was coming. Broad Channel and Breezy Point were getting moved from the V Zone to the A Zone and elevation requirements were being relaxed. On Monday, that happened — just like the advisory said it would.

But that’s where the good news ends. To illustrate how FEMA has veered from the Congressional Advisory we again print the language they used:

Following the release of the advisory maps [in January], FEMA, community officials and technical experts continued technical review of the maps.

That review has identified a reduced risk in certain areas.... Here are the current revisions:

Breezy Point: Significant V to A zone changes; two to three feet of elevation discrepancies.

Broad Channel: Significant V to A zone changes. Significant restructuring of flood zones. Significant difference in elevation requirements.

Rockaway Park: High risk areas moving to Shaded X. Minor elevation changes.

Roxbury: High risk areas moving to Shaded X. Minor elevation changes.

Belle Harbor: Significant V to A zone changes. V12 to A10, A12 to A10, A11 to Shaded X .

Neponsit: A12 to A10, A11 to Shaded X

*****

The new maps issued this week do not reflect the Congressional Advisory revisions with the exceptions of Breezy Point and Broad Channel. There are very few X Zones in the new maps even though the Congressional Advisory stated there would be. (Rockaway Beach was not listed in the Congressional Advisory; but new maps indicate much of the area is in the A Zone. Far Rockaway has an assortment of zones).

We wanted to know what happened. Our correspondence with FEMA was not enlightening.

In an email exchange with a FEMA supervisor, Donald Caetano, The Wave tried to get answers. We present the email exchange here:

From Kevin Boyle:

The Congressional Advisory was issued in April. A GOOD part of the advisory was NOT reflected in the prelim maps released this week. Can I get Mike Byrne or someone in a supervisory position to clarify? Or explain what happened? What was the point of issuing the April advisory if these changes wouldn’t be reflected in the preliminary work maps??

Please don’t tell me about coming Flood Insurance Rate Maps or appeals. I would like to understand why revisions announced in the advisory are not reflected in the prelim maps issued Monday. Nothing more. –Kevin Boyle

The response from FEMA’s Caetano: The preliminary work maps rolled out on Monday incorporate the most accurate data available. The data from the ABFEs was only one source used to build the preliminary work maps. We didn’t use just the ABFEs, meaning that the preliminary work maps will not look EXACTLY like the ABFEs.

Quite frankly, we don’t what to make of that. We asked about the revisions that were announced in the Congressional Advisory. And we got non-responsive, FEMA-speak. We asked for answers so we could provide our readers with information. We apologize for not being able to provide some clarity. We don’t know why the new maps do not reflect what is in the Congressional Advisory. To be sure, we’ve asked, repeatedly.

In addressing the new maps, Schumer, said “FEMA’s most recent version of the new flood maps is a mixed bag. Some communities, like Broad Channel and Breezy Point and Staten Island saw some substantial improvements, while others did not see enough changes. This is a long fight and I will continue to work hand-in-glove with all the communities in the Rockaways-andbeyond to make sure these new maps are accurate, fair and affordable.”

It so happens, the issue of the danger of runaway flood insurance premiums is gaining traction. Mayor Bloomberg, at his press conference on Tuesday, made a forceful case against skyrocketing flood insurance premiums and said his administration would work with legislators in Washington to help homeowners. He listed a number of possible solutions such as high deductibles, lower premiums and flood-proofing as options to curb premiums.

The maps released Monday do have some X Zones (low risk) areas, but not nearly to the extent announced in the Congressional Advisory. Curiously, some oceanfront structures which were damaged have been given X zone status. (We have been told the FEMA studies give little regard to Sandy and that these maps do not reflect the October storm’s impact).

Homeowners and business owners can view the new maps online now. The maps are on a website with a long internet address. We suggest googling “ArcGis Fema Best Flood Maps.” Once on the site, zoom in to find your block or neighborhood.

Finally, the maps released Monday might have more revisions but, we’re told, each new map that is issued is closer to the final maps that will be adopted. The final maps may arrive as soon as within 4 to 6 weeks.

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