Monmouth Beach, a small New Jersey borough on the Jersey Shore, suffered record-setting floods during 2012’s Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy. Some houses that had survived unscathed in all other storms during the past 100 years suffered some level of Sandy-related flood damage. Less than two months after the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released Advisory Base Flood Elevation maps to help property owners and communities make decisions about rebuilding. These maps conservatively estimated base flood elevations expected to be in the new Flood Insurance Rate Maps (which were not released until more than six months after the storm). During this turbulent time, community officials and residents worked through challenging decisions with the potential to affect flood resilience over the next century.
The Advisory Base Flood Elevation maps released in December 2012 did not incorporate an overland wave analysis, which determines where the highest-risk velocity zones and Coastal A zones are located. As a result, many areas were mapped into these highest-risk areas based on a conservative wave analysis estimate. That meant flooding at the one-percent level, or the so-called 100-year flood, could produce either a three-foot or one-and-a-half foot wave.
Residents along the New Jersey coast feared that the additional height included could drastically affect flood insurance rates as well as rebuilding requirements. However, Mayor Sue Howard and commissioners Jim Cunniff and Bill McBride believed that using these strict standards was critical to the community’s recovery effort, ensuring that houses would be as flood-resistant as possible. Monmouth Beach adopted these maps as the community’s flood map standard.
Monmouth Beach also adopted stringent new freeboard standards requiring all structures in floodplains to have three feet of freeboard—two feet higher than the state minimum standard. Houses that were substantially damaged—the cost of damage equal to or exceeding 50 percent of the pre-storm value of the structure—had to be rebuilt to meet the new requirement. This meant that some houses would have to be elevated by nearly one story. The borough has allowed a variance for those houses being elevated to meet the height limit as long as the total height of the structure remains at or below 38 feet.
In addition to the freeboard elevation, Monmouth Beach required that houses located in Coastal A zones—which could experience waves of one-and-a-half feet on top of floodwaters—be built to velocity zone standards. Howard and other borough officials were concerned about whether the municipality could enforce the stronger construction standard because, at the time, it exceeded the New Jersey state building code requirements. Until March 2016, when the state adopted the standard into the building code, the borough granted variances to property owners if requested. However, the borough used the variance hearing as another opportunity to discuss with property owners the importance of preparing for current and future flood risks by building to the stronger standard.
The borough’s changes to floodplain ordinances came in the midst of major flood policy turmoil. The state announced it would enforce a longstanding rule to bring all substantially damaged properties up to current flood elevations, plus at least one foot of freeboard. At the federal level, looming changes to the National Flood Insurance Program through the Biggert-Waters Act would eliminate flood insurance subsidies and bring rates up to the actuarial level. While many communities in New Jersey banded together to protest the changes, there was little controversy in Monmouth Beach.
The borough’s many public engagement efforts kept controversy from erupting over the new floodplain-building requirements. The community connected residents to resources for rebuilding and elevating their properties. Residents began to better recognize the risks of living near the water. The borough sent out weekly emails with rebuilding and recovery information as well as information about flood preparedness and resilience. Community meeting presentations also were sent to residents via email. Borough officials displayed hard-copy emails and presentations in the borough hall and asked residents to share information with neighbors who might not use computers. The messages from Howard and community staff members contained simple and concise language and bullet points. The community also used a reverse 911 system to send out phone calls alerting residents of public meetings.