South Bethany seeks new approach to FIRMs appeal

South Bethany’s maps aren’t leading to where it was expected.

At public urging, the town council hired an environmental consulting firm to manage the potential appeal of flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave the Town until Jan. 20 to appeal maps that would place oceanfront homes in a higher flood zone than expected.

But the Woods Hole Group’s (WHG) plan of applying FEMA’s own rules more evenly has backfired, as coastal geologist Leslie Fields explained at the Nov. 19 town council workshop.

“Despite the fact that we followed all the rules, and that FEMA had a few errors, we came up with pretty much the same mapping,” said Fields.

The results were similar to FEMA’s 2015 preliminary maps, although about 15 southern Ocean Drive houses would decrease from the VE-13 zone to VE-12.

But in some ways, the WHG map “is considerably worse than the FEMA map,” said Councilman George Junkin, because some homes west of Ocean Drive would move from the AO-3 zone (which only risks standing water) to VE-12 or VE-13 (which risks wave action).

“We were surprised when we found this,” Fields said. “To be honest with everybody, I thought we were gonna get something in between FEMA’s 2015 maps and their 2013 maps, but we didn’t.”

WHG’s plan was to compare FEMA’s 2015 revised preliminary maps (which are at the center of debate) to the 2005 pre-dune topography. WHG found that FEMA used non-standard method for dune erosion and used a near-shore water depth that is too shallow.

Fields doesn’t recommend that South Bethany’s future appeal be based on this mapping, although it’s good data to have.

WHG has to step back and consider other options to leverage for its appeal, such as the sand dune constructed in 2008 by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It does provide protection in this area,” Fields said. “We’ve seen photographic evidence after two or three storms … and it does provide protection. There’s much less risk now than before the dune was constructed. So, knowing that, we feel like it’s worth considering developing an appeal based on modeling that considers the [dune].”

But FEMA staff personally told the town that reconstructed dunes aren’t considered in FIRM, since dunes aren’t permanent structures, especially if Congress does not continue funding the project. They’re sacrificial in nature, and the Army Corps design is built in the most economically beneficial way, not specifically to protect in a 50- or 100-year storm event.

“FEMA seemed to say they disregard the dune. … What sort of strategies would you bring forward to combat that?” asked Councilwoman Sue Callaway.

Fields said WHG may argue that the dune has well-established vegetation (which helps hold the sand in place); that the Army Corps has a 50-year maintenance plan (although it’s based on available funding); and that the dune has already protected the town.

“We would want to develop some really strong rationale for why the dune should be considered,” Fields said. “We have done a fair amount of thinking about this at the office … and we feel like we can support that appeal. There’s no guarantee that FEMA will accept it.”

South Bethany could argue that FEMA treated them differently from neighboring towns with similar topography. But FEMA could turn around and fix any errors in neighboring maps, which won’t help South Bethany, Fields said.

Next step in the appeal

Despite the unexpected results, the town council didn’t hesitate when voting unanimously to direct WHG to officially develop a strategy of appeal. This is Task 3 of the process, costing $3,790.

“We have science and reality to consider here. The dune has done its job and protected us well in storms, and that is our reality. The FEMA science does not want to consider the reality of our dune. Hopefully, we strike a balance where reality and science can coexist,” wrote Mayor Pat Voveris in an email after the meeting.

“I trust the WHG to put forth thorough and exhaustive efforts on behalf of our town,” she added. “This may well be a pioneering effort for FEMA consideration.”

In December, the town council will vote on whether to submit the appeal, based on WHG’s likelihood of success. If so, WHG will officially write and submit the appeal in Task 4, which costs $7,280.

Task 1 was WHG’s Army Corps dune study, which didn’t produce the apples-to-apples maps they hoped would translate easily into a new FIRM. Task 2 was the modeling and flood zone mapping.

South Bethany is currently operating under the previous 2005 FIRM. After FEMA resolves any appeals submitted by the Town or individuals, (which could take months), it will issue a new Notice of Final Determination. Six months later, the new maps could be enacted, as early as summer of 2016. The final FIRM will have an impact on home owners’ flood insurance rates.

The next regular town council meeting is Friday, Dec. 4, at 7 p.m.