Sea Isle’s Transformation Shows after Sandy
Over the last two decades, Sea Isle City, New Jersey, has had a complete turnaround in its attitude toward flooding, flood prevention, and floodplain management, according to Neil Byrne, Construction Official. “And more recently, the Community Rating System has raised the flood awareness in this community, the awareness of premium reductions, and the awareness of standards that can reduce flood losses,” he explained.
When Mayor Leonard Desiderio first took office in 1993, the community was facing suspension from the National Flood Insurance Program. He and the City Council realized that flood insurance was critical to their resort community, which lies on a barrier island off the New Jersey coast, surrounded by bays and the Atlantic Ocean. Sea Isle’s year-round population is about 2,100, but it swells to 40,000 on summer weekends. And all this is spread over only 2.5 square miles almost completely within the Special Flood Hazard Area.
“Well, we’ve got to work on that,” Desiderio said when the deficiencies in local handling of flood hazard management were explained to him.
And work they did. Together, the mayor, city council, and the rest of the city commenced to put their full support behind the community’s floodplain management work.
Over 200 summonses were issued to non-compliant structures in order to bring them up to the flood-protection standards of the NFIP. This effort got 100% support from the mayor and city council. No exceptions were given.
Sea Isle didn’t stop there, however.
In the years that followed, “it was a lot of hard work and it was a lot of changing of the way we had done things in Sea Isle City previously,” Desiderio said. “It was ordinance changes and improving a lot of our construction procedures and standards.”
The community took on many strategies that go beyond the minimum requirements of the NFIP.
Higher Regulatory Standards
- No breakaway walls, latticework, or storage rooms are allowed in V Zones. Only parking and crawl space are permitted below a building.
- All entrances to a building (including foyers) have to be at or above the base flood elevation.
- The design flood elevation is 11 feet in A zones and 14 feet in V zones—above the levels shown in the latest FEMA preliminary flood maps.
- A safety margin of freeboard is added to make new and rebuilt structures even better protected. The freeboard ranges from 3 feet to 6 feet above the base flood elevation, depending on the map and zone.
- The new City Municipal Complex was built to the 500-year standard of 13 feet elevation plus an additional 5 fee for a total elevation of 18 feet. The building now stands as a fitting symbol of Sea Isle’s commitment to minimizing its flood losses.
- No fill is allowed in the A Zones or V Zones. No variances are issued for fill.
- Before a building in an A Zone changes hands, a certification must be issued that the foundation has appropriate venting. These openings in the foundation walls allow flood waters to enter the lower area, preventing the buildup of water pressure.
- The marshland and beaches surrounding the community are designated as open space. No construction is allowed.
- As they become available, the city is buying up A Zone lots, and adding them to the ongoing open space project.
Work Shows Results
A testament to the progress is that, in 2000, Sea Isle was able to join the CRS. And the measures that were already in place made it possible to enter the CRS as a Class 6 community. Realizing that the savings in flood insurance premiums because of their rating ranged around $1 million each year, the community became even bigger advocates for the CRS.
“Once we achieved one goal, it made us want to continue,” Mayor Desiderio said. “Working hard, working together, and working with the FEMA offices helped us prevail.”
“We don’t let too many days go by where we don’t tout to our neighbors and to our citizens that we are a 25% discount community.”
The community’s all-out effort has yielded a Sea Isle that is far better prepared for coastal storms and flooding. After Hurricane Sandy, there were only 19 substantially damaged structures. Most of the town was fully operational two to three days after the storm.
Byrne says they aren’t stopping now, though. Sea Isle is finalizing a comprehensive stormwater management plan that should bring more CRS credit points. “We hopes to rise to the next CRS class and become the only community in New Jersey with that rating,” he said.