FEMA rejects South Bethany’s flood map appeal

South Bethany has had trouble stemming the tide. Just as storms battered their protective sand dunes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has completely rejected their appeals to downgrade the new flood insurance rate map (FIRM).

In two letters dated April 6, FEMA officials informed the Town of South Bethany that “no changes are warranted at this time” to the Preliminary FIRM, which was created on May 18, 2015.

The town council had approved sending two appeals in January, both on behalf of the Town and on behalf of property owner Ed Bintz.

Owning an Ocean Drive house in 2014, Bintz said he had looked forward to a reduction in flood insurance premiums because FEMA was considering lowering the base flood elevation (BFE) of the street from VE-12 feet to VE-10 feet.

But after input from Town and State officials, most of Ocean Drive instead leapt up to the VE-13 designation. That number indicates how high the house must be built to (presumably) avoid flood damage during a 1-percent, or 100-year, storm event.

FEMA re-opened the public comments period so that South Bethany and Bintz could submit appeals.

Originally, South Bethany’s environmental consultant, the Woods Hole Group, planned to appeal based on disagreements with some of FEMA’s map-making methods. But they backed off that first argument upon realizing that different techniques could produce even more stringent results for coastal vulnerability than FEMA had proposed.

After that, the Woods Hole consultants (usually boasting a strong success record) could barely recommend that South Bethany appeal based primarily on its last available argument — the protection provided by the man-made dunes on its beaches — although they promised to give it their all.

South Bethany leaders were repeatedly warned that FEMA would not consider man-made dunes in its floodplain maps.

“While a nourished beach can provide a buffer against storm waves, beaches and dunes are dynamic in nature and may erode, and [dunes] do not always help reduce the 1-percent annual chance flood hazard,” stated FEMA’s letter.

The dune argument got a further slap in the face, simply based on bad timing. The appeal was sent soon after the damaging September/October storms in 2015, and mere days before the January blizzard, which caused another 45 to 100 percent dune loss throughout town.

“You used a dune that’s no longer there, so that kind of shoots your argument in the foot,” said Mayor Pat Voveris. “We appealed on the 20th, and [Winter Storm] Jonas hit on the 23rd,” Voveris said. “The dune did its job. It was sacrificial in nature.”

But that left FEMA to consider a vulnerable town built up on the coast, without a constant source of protection.

South Bethany is on a 50-year plan to maintain the engineered dunes, but the three-year rotation for replenishment is at the mercy of Congressional funding approval.

Voveris, Councilman Tim Saxton and Councilman Frank Weisgerber had voted against sending the appeal to FEMA.

“Just along the way, it just became very clear it just didn’t make any sense to move forward,” Voveris said. “It was tough, because we had an emotional audience. We had people who felt we owned it to them. I live on Ocean Drive, [but] everything I learned along the way pointed to: it just didn’t make any sense.”

The council had acted partly as a way to set the playing field for citizens to appeal or take the case to court in in the future.

“In the end, we tried,” Voveris said. “And if you never tried, you never know.”

Meanwhile, Bintz had argued partly against FEMA’s changing its methods for producing a more stringent 13-foot map.

This time, that included photographs of past storm damage, beach elevation surveys before and after major storms and discussions with state and local officials regarding firsthand experience of South Bethany’s beach erosion.

“[These] indicate that the wave energy around the South Bethany coastline during major storms is high and causes much more severe erosion than that produced with FEMA standard methodology,” FEMA stated. “Lowering the BFE in this area would not reflect the known flood hazard risk here.”

Usually, FEMA uses more generalized methods to produce large-scale studies. But officials said they appreciate and rely on more individualized methods to help them paint an accurate picture of South Bethany flooding:

“FEMA encourages more tailored engineering analyses in specific areas with unique conditions. FEMA relies on State and local officials to provide the firsthand information … since they have extensive knowledge of the local historic conditions.”

The appellants have 30 days to submit further comments or request review from a Scientific Resolution Panel, an independent board of experts that would review conflicting scientific data.

“I’m confident in the merits of the appeal I filed, and I continue to pursue this further,” Bintz told the Coastal Point. He didn’t comment on specific plans beyond that.

If FEMA doesn’t receive any more comments from the appellants during the 30-day period, it will finalize the maps by issuing a Letter of Final Determination (LFD). The new maps could be enacted around autumn.

The South Bethany Town Council has made no move to pursue further action. The FEMA announcement got little public response at the April 8 town council meeting.