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Queens Chronicle

Howard Beach a flood zone in new FEMA maps

FEMA says maps are only advisory, and do not carry regulations — yet

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Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2013 10:30 am

It may not come as a surprise to residents of Howard Beach who endured the rising floodwaters associated with Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge in October, but new maps released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency say that most of the neighborhood is a flood zone.

Under maps released by FEMA last week, the entire neighborhood south of the Belt Parkway and a section of Lindenwood west of 84th Street are now considered flood hazard zones. Previous flood maps had included Hamilton Beach and small sections of Howard Beach near Coleman Square, but the vast majority of the neighborhood was left out.

The new flood maps double the number of homes and buildings in the danger zone citywide and include neighborhoods like Canarsie and Gravesend in Brooklyn, and New Dorp in Staten Island, which were previously not considered flood zones. The flood map for the city had not been updated since the 1980s.

Hannah Vick, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said the maps are merely “advisory” right now; and regulatory maps — which the agency had been working on well before Hurricane Sandy — will come out later this spring.

She explained that rather than wait until the regulatory maps were made, FEMA decided to take what it already knew and release what Vick described as “precursor” maps that would help guide residents as they clean up from the storm.

“Adopting flood maps takes one to two years and we were working on the maps for the New York area anyway,” Vick said. “We had this scientific data; we didn’t want to just sit on it.”

Under the new maps, Broad Channel is classified as a “V” location, which means flooding is not the only concern there, but also waves. With the exception of a couple of blocks on the far northeastern side of the neighborhood, all of Howard Beach south of the Belt Parkway and Lindenwood west of 84th Street is an “A” neighborhood. That means flooding is the primary concern in those areas. However, most of the neighborhood, from 92nd Street — one block west of Cross Bay Boulevard — across Shellbank Basin and including all of Hamilton Beach and Old Howard Beach south of 157th Avenue, is at risk for moderate wave action in the worst storms. The only exception is a six-block section between 97th and 99th streets and 157th and 160th avenues, where the elevation is slightly higher. That section includes PS 146, which was spared severe flood damage due to its higher location.

Small waves were observed crashing along Cross Bay Boulevard between 164th and 165th avenues and in parts of Old Howard Beach near Charles Park during the storm.

The maps identify altitudes in which the flood risks are strong. For most of the neighborhood, there is 1 percent annual risk for a flood up to altitudes of 10 or 11 feet above sea level. That 1 percent risk is equal to what FEMA had termed a “100-year flood,” lingo Vick said the agency is dropping because of misconceptions.

“It’s possible to get a 100-year flood every year,” she said.

For the southern portion of the neighborhood, there is a .25 percent risk of a devastating flood at 15 feet above sea level, which would be the equivalent of a “500-year flood.” North of 159th Avenue and in Lindenwood, the .25 percent annual risk is at 12 feet.

FEMA also looked at the rest of Lindenwood and a small section of Old Howard Beach between 156th and 155th avenues, and Cohancy and 100th streets, and determined them to not be flood areas.

The maps do not carry the regulations the final maps will, including requiring residents to buy flood insurance or to make structural adaptations to withstand floods, but Vick noted that residents could use the maps to plan reconstruction and reinforcing efforts and buy flood insurance, so that they are prepared when final regulatory maps are approved and new rules take effect.

Vick expects the final maps to look similar to the advisory ones and said factors that have not been taken into account yet, such as new residential or commercial developments, that could have altered the flood plain may force some changes from the advisory map. She noted that there was a situation in Chicago where a new housing development caused flooding in an adjacent neighborhood that had never experienced flooding before.

When the final regulatory maps are released, they would need to be approved by the City Council. FEMA will hold public hearings and there will be a comment period before the Council votes. There is also an appeals process that could hold up final approval for months.

If they are approved, every resident living in the zone would need to purchase flood insurance, but Vick suggests all residents get it anyway, and take precautions based on the map, including considering raising homes higher than the 10-to-15 feet altitude outlined in the zone map.

A number of newer homes in Howard Beach are raised, often as high as 15 feet above sea level.

The maps also make significant changes to the Rockaways. Previously, higher areas of the Rockaway Peninsula, such as Belle Harbor and Seaside, were left out of the flood zone. The new maps include the entire peninsula in the flood zone. Also, a section of Rosedale south of 147th Avenue is added to the zones.

Advisory maps for the northern part of the borough — including potential new flood zones in Long Island City, Astoria and College Point — are due out next month.

The new maps will not affect the city’s evacuation zone maps, but those also could be changed. Howard Beach was listed as Zone B — an area typically not ordered to evacuate in a Category 1 hurricane like Sandy. After the storm, some residents wondered if the city should have evacuated the area.

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