A meeting by a grassroots organization dedicated to opposing the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) flood maps was shut down by Toms River police Saturday after being overwhelmed by large crowds.
The group, Stop FEMA Now, is hoping its unified voice will reach elected officials and encourage them to speak out against FEMA's Advisory Base Flood Elevation maps, which were recently adopted by the State. If the maps aren't changed, thousands of residents along New Jersey's coasts will be required to elevate their homes or face potentially financially-crippling flood insurance premiums in the years go come.
After its meeting last week saw about 25 people show up to Belly Busters Subs for a brief discussion, organizers were optimistic about the group moving forward, hopeful that it would gain more traction and attract a larger crowd.
They didn't expect this.
About 100 people crowded into the frozen yogurt shop next door to the sub shop, packing every inch of the place and forcing more still to be turned away at the door. With the parking lot full, residents from Toms River, Brick, and other coastal communities parked their cars in far away lots, making the dangerous trek along the road's narrow shoulders in the rain down.
Others ignored the boulevard's posted "No Stopping" signs and simply parked on the side of the road.
An apologetic Toms River Police Department Chief Michael Mastronardy asked the crowd to end the meeting quickly to ensure that the residents' safety wasn't compromised.
"We want you to meet safely," he said. "Let's get a safe location. Whatever information you have to get out, get it out as quick as possible.
Several officers were on hand helping direct traffic and even closing off turning lanes to accommodate the crowd. Police were patient and helpful, even offering residents a lift to their far-away parked cars, and organizers said they held no ill will for the shut down.
"We just need to get a safe venue for you and do this right," Mastronardy said.
Stop FEMA Now organizer George Kasimos said the crowd was larger than anticipated. About 20 people RSVP'd, he said, with the majority showing up after learning about the meeting online and in a recent Patch article.
For the group's next meeting, one that has already been set for March 9 from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., Kasimos said he plans on finding a much larger location to house the crowd. Now, he's just got to find it.