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Ocean City

FEMA data trumps city’s efforts on dunes

(Feb. 14, 2014) With federal flood re-mapping under way, property owners at the extreme north end of the city’s beach have found they won’t be getting quite the break the rest of the resort has gotten.

While most of the resort’s coastline has been taken out of a flood zone on the latest map revisions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the area from 146th to 144th Streets is still in a risk area, albeit a lower-grade one than before.

“We’re trying to find out why we are [classified] like Delaware instead of like the rest of Ocean City,” said Mac Balkcom, a unit owner at the Ocean Place Condo on 146th Street, at Monday’s council meeting.

“The latest from FEMA is that the dunes in front of our building and for two blocks down are not quite as good as the dunes further south,” Balkcom said. “I’m here to ask for any assistance from the city you can give.”

The short answer to the plight of Balkcom and his neighbors is that the dune adjacent to the Delaware line is, in fact, simply not as strong as it is elsewhere in the resort, despite efforts to bolster it.

“It’s what we call a ‘hot spot,’” City Engineer Terry McGean said Tuesday. “It erodes faster than other areas of beach. After Sandy, we had damage to the dunes, and that was definitely one of them.”

Federal contractors from the Army Corps of Engineers are currently working from the north end of town south, pushing sand from the beach back into the dunes. Dredging – using barges that will suck up sand from the ocean floor and deposit it on the beach to a specified breadth – is scheduled to begin Feb. 25, McGean said, and last through April 1, weather permitting.

Other hot spots include 33rd Street and the area from 75th to 85th Streets, McGean said. But the north end is the most difficult to deal with, given that it abuts the Delaware line, and is thus a sort of seam between Ocean City’s dune and Delaware’s less-ambitious beach project.

When FEMA revealed its new flood risk maps several months ago, it was discovered that most of Ocean City’s oceanfront had been de-classified from its previous designation as a “V” zone, indicating risk of flooding as well as high-velocity impact during storms.

This was what the city was hoping for, in part, given that the town had lobbied to have FEMA take the city’s man-made dunes and beaches into account as defense against seaborne storm damage.

But much to the town’s surprise, FEMA did not downgrade the “V” zone to an “A” zone, which indicates flood risk but not velocity, as expected.

Instead, most of Ocean City is now an “X” zone, where properties will not be required to have flood insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program. Only some low-lying areas in the center of town, as well as downtown bayside areas, are still in an “A” zone requiring insurance, as is the two uptown ocean blocks.

The assumption has been that FEMA’s widespread de-classifications are an attempt to get the federal government out of the flood insurance business. Subsidized policies through the NFIP ran a deficit of over $24 billion as of the end of the last fiscal year.

If property owners in “X” areas are not required to get NFIP coverage, then they likely won’t – an option Balkcom and his neighbors would also like to enjoy.

Still, the reduction from “V” to “A” risk levels entails a significantly lesser NFIP premium.

“You did get downgraded, so your insurance will be less than it was,” Mayor Rick Meehan said Monday. “We will certainly do whatever we can to that dune [at 146th Street], but I think it’s something much more than that.”

The city has been giving the north end of the dune line extra attention – but that doesn’t trump the fact that FEMA’s model still indicates the north end is at a higher risk.

“The stock answer that’s going to come back from the federal government – what they’ve always said – is ‘here are our updated maps, and the data behind it,’” said city Planning Director Matt Margotta. “If you have a problem with it, you need to be able to prove it with the same data. You can’t just not like it.”

Due to the level of confusion on the issue, Margotta said he is looking to host a meeting for resort property owners in which the city can help interpret some of FEMA’s findings.

“I’m trying to coordinate a local meeting here that we can host or even be the main facilitators for,” Margotta said. “I’m coordinating with MEMA [the Maryland Emergency Management Agency] and FEMA to see if we can get some actual data. That’ll likely be mid-March.”

The obvious explanation for why FEMA’s data indicates a weaker structure on the north end is that sand does not stick together.

“There’s an inherent issue when piling up sand, which is that it starts to spread out,” said Councilman Joe Mitrecic.

When there is a more substantial buttress on either side, the sand holds in place, but ends of dune will dissipate. Given that Delaware’s dunes are lower, and its beach less broad than Ocean City’s, flooding on the Delaware ocean front would then begin to erode the city’s dune starting at the north end.

“From a common-sense point of view, that may be as big a problem as anything,” Mitrecic told Balkcom.

Because of this, the north end of town actually receives more attention than the rest.

“Typically, the ends of any replenishment project will experience a higher erosion rate, so for that reason our project actually extends into Delaware,” McGean said. “Now that Delaware has extended their project that far south, they actually extend into our area, so in reality that area gets re-nourished by two districts.”

The area just south of the Delaware line, McGean noted, is slated for a berm width of 80 feet once dredging begins. This is the width of the beach from the eastern toe of the dune to the point where the sand begins to taper into the ocean. The only areas with a larger berm are downtown where the dune stops and the seawall protects the Boardwalk, McGean said.

“They are getting the largest berm we’re putting in this year,” he said. “Even if we went up there and artificially made the dune itself larger, it’s highly unlikely that FEMA would recognize that as a natural, stable dune.”

Further, McGean noted, the north end of town experiences a reversed littoral drift. On the East Coast, currents typically move north-to-south, taking sand with them. But at points where seawater flows inland, the drift is pulled toward the inlet from both directions.

At a given point to the south of the inlet, there will be a break where sand is flowing north toward the inlet but not being replaced by sand flowing up from the south.

“Surprisingly, one of the big factors in erosion for the north end of town is the Indian River Inlet,” McGean said. “It’s the same reason that Assateague has erosion problems because of our inlet.”

McGean also noted that the city is encouraging property owners to maintain their flood insurance, even if they have been down-graded to an “X” zone.

“I would caution anyone that just because, under these maps, they are not in a ‘hundred-year flood zone,’ does not mean they will never have flood damage,” McGean said.

“[The maps] are purely based on risk data. They’re not a building code. All they are is a classification.”

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