Flood-Prone Communities Contemplate Buyouts

Debbie Halcomb unpacked boxes and worried that her damp carpet harbored mold as she moved back into her flood-damaged home on Wednesday.

She enjoys the normally tranquil setting about three miles from the Mississippi River in the eastern Missouri community of Winfield. But she's had enough. She's hoping for a government buyout so she can move to higher ground.

"I don't know if I can take another flood," Halcomb said.

After the Great Flood of 1993, the government bought out thousands of properties in flood plains around the Midwest. Now, weeks after the latest massive flood, voluntary buyouts are again being considered in at least five states -- Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.

Residents in areas that qualify can sell their properties to their city or county, with 75 percent of the costs paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the other 25 percent paid by nonfederal funds. Each state manages the buyout grant money.

Communities demolish what's on site and agree not to develop the land, though it can be used as a park or take on some other recreational use.

Brett Voorhees, spokesman for Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said more than a half dozen Iowa communities suffered enough flood damage that they likely are considering buyouts. Notices of interest are due Sept. 12.

Voorhees said it will be months before officials know how much money FEMA will provide. Typically, he said there's not enough funding for all buyouts.

"It's a very competitive process," he said.

Officials in Des Moines, Iowa, are moving ahead with a buyout plan for a neighborhood north of downtown called Birdland Park. They will request $1.2 million from the federal government to buy up to 20 homes, among the more than 100 properties damaged when the Des Moines River breached a levee in June.

In Wisconsin, applications for the buyout program have been sent to 18 communities and another eight are going to be sent, said Roxanne K. Gray, state hazard mitigation officer.

"There's some areas where FEMA hasn't gotten in to do inspections yet," Gray said. "We know there are going to be a lot of properties that are uninhabitable."

Indiana's Department of Homeland Security said three communities -- Columbus, Martinsville and Franklin -- as well as six counties expressed interest in the buyout program.

Missouri has been hit by flooding in both the early spring and in June. The State Emergency Management Agency said 20 new mitigation projects had been proposed, including eight possible buyout proposals.

In Illinois, the number of possible buyouts remains as murky as the Mississippi itself.

The state's Emergency Management Agency this week will begin sending letters to flood-affected jurisdictions, inviting them to begin pre-applying for relief including buyouts, said Rob Davis, with the agency's Bureau of Disaster Assistance and Preparedness. FEMA ultimately must sign off on any of the projects.

In Keithsburg, a northwest Illinois community of some 700, Mayor Jim Stewart said FEMA crews still were assessing damages caused when floodwaters overcame nearby levees and swamped about 80 homes and 20 businesses.

The village had been through this before. In 1993, the federal government snapped up roughly 100 homes, and moved many residents into new houses on a hill.

This time, Stewart suspects some homeowners will take a buyout if offered, and he's hopeful they'll relocate to 11 lots on a subdivision that's "high and dry."

FEMA officials in Washington said that after the 1993 flood nearly 12,000 properties were bought out in nine states, with about 500 additional structures relocated or elevated.

They suspect they'll get more requests for new buyouts than they can help to fund. Still, they believe the buyouts save money in the long run.

"The whole idea of mitigation is to break the cycle of disaster, rebuild and disaster, rebuild," said FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney. "We want to make sure when we rebuild, we rebuild safer, smarter and stronger."

Along the Mississippi, tiny Meyer, Ill., population 40 or so, still remained cut off in every direction by lingering floodwaters that swamped the town after a levee breach, much like it did 15 years ago.

Gerald Jenkins, the general manager of Meyer's Ursa Farmers Coop with a grain elevator, doesn't think the will sway anyone into moving out.

"To say that someone's just going to bail just because it's happened twice in the last 15 or 20 years, you'll have a challenge finding that. That's where they grew up, that's their home," Jenkins said. "There are tornadoes that happen in Kansas every year, but that doesn't mean everyone moves out of Kansas."