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How Sea Isle City Went from Worst to First in New Jersey Floodplain Management

February 11, 2024
Susanna Pho, CFM

When it comes to local governance, our community leaders often wear many different hats. Neil Byrne, for example, wears five. As Construction Official, Building Sub-code Official, Building Inspector, Zoning Officer & Certified Floodplain Manager for over 13,000 residents across Sea Isle City and Ocean City, New Jersey, Neil plays a critical role in these communities’ efforts to build long-term resilience against flooding.

In 2018, Neil was awarded the Association of State Floodplain Managers' Local Floodplain Manager of the Year award - but the story of how he and his team turned around floodplain management work in Sea Isle City begins more than a decade earlier. We sat down recently with Neil to discuss how Sea Isle City managed to go from “Worst” to “First” for floodplain management in the state of New Jersey, and how other communities can get started down a more flood resilient path, too.

In 1993, Sea Isle City received a warning letter from FEMA that they were preparing to kick the community out of the National Flood Insurance Program - something that newly-minted Mayor Len Desiderio wasn’t about to let happen.

“Mayor Len bought into the program early. The first thing he did was start to learn what was required and make sure that the community didn’t get placed on probation with the NFIP,” said Neil. “It took almost 20 years, the Administration had worked on Flood resilience for over    15 years. Finally, when I was hired, it was the final push that we needed to get the FEMA letters, stating we were in compliance with the NFIP minimum standards and allowed to apply to the CRS program.”

When he joined Sea Isle City In 2008, Neil took the lead on the community’s application to the CRS program - and managed to secure a Class 6 rating (and a 20% discount on flood insurance rates) right out of the gate.

“We went into the program as a six because the team , before me had been working all these years on all these higher standards,” said Neil. “ A decision was made , if we got this far, let's keep going.”

Today, Sea Isle City has a Class 3 rating - one of only two Class 3’s across New Jersey, and in the top 2% of the 1,700+ communities participating in the CRS program. Along with the rating comes a 35% discount on flood insurance policies through the NFIP - which saves the community’s residents over $1.6 million a year for flood insurance.

So what do Neil and his team credit for going from the brink of suspension from the National Flood Insurance Program to becoming the state’s leader in floodplain management? Three things, according to Neil: Support from Sea Isle City’s Mayor, embracing floodplain policies that go beyond FEMA requirements, and making community outreach around flood risk a key part of his team’s work.

Support from Government Leadership is Critical - Even When It’s Not Easy

“You need an administration and the politicians to buy into the program - if they don't buy in, if they don't support you, you have no chance of moving up,” said Neil. “My mayor, Len Desiderio is a very proactive mayor and made the flood resistance, especially the CRS program, one of his big agenda items. One of his projects is better flood protection for the town, and that comes through the CRS and enacting stronger and higher standards, and giving me the time, money and support to do the things that need to be done.”

Neil added that while most people agree that enacting higher flood risk standards is a good thing in the long term, not everyone supports it in the moment - especially if higher standards means that residents and businesses will have to spend money on things like building their homes higher.  

“It costs the residents real money sometimes, and real issues when it comes to the things they want to do with their properties. You have to build higher, you have to build out of certain materials, you can't do certain things that they want to do that other towns allow,” said Neil, “It costs political capital between the administration and the council. I work with both of them very, very closely, passing new ordinances, passing higher standards. That’s one of the biggest things of the whole program, having the politicians, your administration and your council members back you up.”

But, he added, the discounts earned through a high ranking in the system can make a significant difference for residents. “They get the 35 percent discount on their flood insurance for NFIP policies and for compliance structures,” said Neil. “That's real money.”

Invest in Studies and Go Above and Beyond What FEMA Requires

Planning for flood risk now as well as well into the future can’t be done properly without a deep understanding of the factors at play - environmental, ecological, infrastructural, etc.

“We have the Flood Master Plan and the Watershed Master Plan, which are both worth a lot of points,” said Neil. “Besides the time it takes to create the plans, there's several thousand dollars a year that are required to maintain these programs and make sure that they're updated.” But, says Neil, it’s an investment well worth making.

Sea Isle City has also embraced floodplain regulations that are stricter than what FEMA requires. Although FEMA allows for ground-level foyers, entrances and rooms, as well as breakaway walls and flood-resistant materials, Sea Isle City does not. Not only do these stricter regulations help Sea Isle City prepare for the future, but they also help them gain points and move up in the CRS system.  

Communication with Residents is the Key

A key aspect of the Sea Isle City flood risk philosophy is education. Along with the help of Forerunner, Neil has been able to set up an in-depth, and knowledgeable website that provides a lot of the information someone might need related to their flood risk. There’s also an advanced warning system the city has implemented to better communicate with citizens about incoming storms, so that they can be prepared and take necessary precautions.

Sea Isle City has also benefited from becoming a charter member of the New Jersey Coastal Coalition PPI, the biggest PPI in the country. The city does outreach to residents throughout the year, focusing on educating and informing the public about their individual flood risk and how to attain flood insurance.

All of these efforts culminate into points that the city receives towards their CRS classification. Be it preventive flood planning, investments into better infrastructure, or even tech upgrades and accessibility to information, all of it plays a big role in maintaining or improving a CRS ranking. Forerunner has become an essential day-to-day tool for Neil and his staff as they navigate the complexities of government infrastructure surrounding flood management and the CRS program.

Moving forward, Sea Isle City hopes to achieve a rare Class 2 rating in the CRS, but Neil knows how much of a challenge that is. “The low hanging fruit is all gone - there is nowhere for us to get points easily,” said Neil.

For now, Neil is focused on maintaining the high standards they’ve established and making strides towards improvement where there’s room.

“It takes time to do it, and it takes the effort to stay on top of it,” said Neil.

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