Natural disasters have the tendency to churn up new words in the media, changing the vocabulary of the people affected by them. These words seem to fluctuate over time; coming and going with the ebb and flow of the very tides that every so often, wreak havoc on the places we call home and love. As Hurricane Sandy ravaged the state of New Jersey, taking homes and lives along the way, there is no surprise by the use of the word “devastated” in headlines. For many, this devastation still rings true, as the sharp pain of the storm can still be felt and the nightmare of rebuilding has only just begun.

The controversial subject of rebuilding after Sandy has drawn in quite a few new words, including some of the dreaded and often ignored. The phrases, “climate change” and “flood plain” entered the vernacular of the buzzing discussion surrounding the many rebuilding issues.

In particular, there are two unique words that are keeping the discourse surrounding global warming afloat: the fearsome “elevation requirement”. This would be the newly mandated NJDEP (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) requirement for homeowners whose homes “lie within a flood hazard area and was substantially damaged” to rebuild their homes at least one foot above the “design flood elevation”. Homeowners have to bear the burden raising their home or they will face higher insurance premiums, and so partial redesign out of pocket is a direct cost they are burdened with.

Thousands of homeowners in New Jersey essentially bought homes in high flood hazard areas, though this information was not particularly accurate at the time of purchase. More importantly, the maps that hold the final say on this elevation designation were not accurate either. Upon closer inspection, it was found that the “current” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood plain maps in use at the time were archaic and outdated. FEMA had only just begun a coastal flood study for the purpose of updating Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) right before Hurricane Sandy hit in October of 2012.

The pressure of Sandy forced FEMA to churn out revised maps with a much higher turnaround than originally anticipated. Drafts of maps released by FEMA are now being used as “rough guidelines” for those businesses eager to rebuild, and “velocity” zones have been scaled back in response to the angered citizens who would have to put their homes on piles should the new zone apply to them.

Atlantic City Flood Insurance Map. Courtesy of the FEMA Map service at

Atlantic City Flood Insurance Map. Courtesy of the FEMA Map service at

New Jerseans have come to learn that while flood zone maps are not necessarily needed to warn people that living near water poses risk, detailed maps, with projections of storm surge and flood pattern changes, are. The push and pull of the ongoing politics between FEMA and the state of New Jersey still leaves much room for debate as people clamor to answer the question: how can these homeowners afford to raise their house? Had storm surge or a close examination of changes in tide charts been looked at, perhaps the elevation requirement could have been anticipated, planned for, and maybe even budgeted. The conversation lends itself to fundamental questions such as the very placement of a home. How exactly do we justify building a house by the ocean in the first place? What will the next ten or twenty years look like?

This situation makes a poignant statement in the climate change discussion. Changes in weather patterns must be thoroughly considered when examining the planning objective to build resilient cities, cities “stronger than the storm” (regardless of what is causing the changes in the weather patterns). The power in this circumstance is not that climate change is even on the table.. The connection between the environment and where people live is becoming more apparent as time goes by. Severe weather conditions continue to prove themselves a reality that requires detailed foresight by all who may be potentially affected. It is no longer merely optional to consider the sustainability in these affected areas.

  • Magnitogorsk

    The insurance industry must be actively promoting the one foot elevation standard since that industry stands to benefit financially from that elevated standard. For these same reasons, homeowner investment in elevated properties won’t prove to be the unmitigated loss that some claim.
    Presumably, NJDEP wouldn’t propose the elevation requirement unless it reduced the risk of property loss/damage relative to the status quo. Thus, the probability and magnitude of insurance payouts to owners of elevated shoreline homes would decrease in proportion with the reduced risk of loss flowing from the elevation requirement. Less frequent payouts means more money in the pockets of insurers (an insurer’s dream). In a competitive insurance market, reduced frequency and magnitude of payouts should translate to lower insurance premiums for elevated shoreline property owners. The future prospect of lower insurance premiums would then be capitalized into the present value of the elevated shoreline property – providing shoreline homeowners with a return (albeit an unknown amount) on their initial investment. In light of this analysis, shoreline homeowners shouldn’t be too upset, from a financial perspective, about incurring initial costs to raise their home in accordance with the elevation requirement.