New York Has More Than 400 FEMA Home Buyout Applications

By MICHAEL HILL | September 10, 2012

Gertrude Baker and her husband bought their cozy home in Owego in 1956. They raised three kids, befriended neighbors and weathered the occasional flood.

But after Tropical Storm Lee bought five feet of water to her first floor last year, the 81-year-old widow decided it would be better to raze the home.

“You look at it and you say, ‘Good grief, how often do you want to go through this?”‘ she said. “You get to a point where you say, ‘This is it. No more.”‘

The Southern Tier resident is among more than 400 New York homeowners who could benefit from buyout applications pending before the Federal Emergency Management Agency a year after tropical storms Irene and Lee struck the state. Eligible homes are typically leveled and the property must revert to open space.

Approved residents will get a partial reimbursement for their loss – and a chance for a new start.

The applications recently sent by the state to FEMA for $48.1 million worth of projects are a small portion of the more than $1 billion in damages from Irene and Lee in New York state. But the applications represent some of the starkest choices faced by people struck hardest by floods: whether to fix up their homes or move on.

The choice was clear for John Brancato Sr., an 81-year-old who bought a secluded Cape Cod in the northern New York Town of Ausable for $150,000 in 2010. When Irene hit, the river rose and broke through his cellar wall. He had to be rescued.

Contractors estimated it would take around $90,000 to repair the house, which he could have covered with a low-interest government loan. But he worried about mold, contaminated mud and clean well water. The math didn’t add up for repairs. And who would ever buy his house?

He just walked away and eventually got an apartment in nearby Plattsburgh.

“How can you go back to a place that is flooded with the knowledge that it can flood again?” he asked. “It’s crazy.”

The federal acquisition program is designed for buildings with damages substantial enough to make it cost effective to remove them. The 405 applications forwarded by state officials to FEMA late last month are mostly from Binghamton and surrounding Broome County, as well as the adjoining counties of Tioga and Chenango, where flooding from Lee was the worst in New York.

Some of those Southern Tier towns are potentially looking at dozens of homes coming off the tax rolls when they take title and the responsibility for maintaining the land as open space. The Town of Vestal next to Binghamton, for instance, has applications for 61 homes.

“Of course we don’t’ get the tax dollars again. So what do we do with the land? Do we mow it? It’s got to be forever green,” said Vestal supervisor John Schaffer. “You can’t build on it once FEMA purchases it, so we’re stuck with another cost.”

FEMA covers three-quarters of project costs. In the case of a home with a pre-flood market value of $100,000 that requires $20,000 for razing, asbestos tests, and other related costs, FEMA would cover three-quarters of $120,000, or $90,000.

Officials with the state Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Services said decisions from the federal agency could start coming in a month or so. More applications from New York are planned, as well separate applications to elevate flood-struck building on the same footprint.

In Owego, Baker said she’s sad that her home of more than five decades could be soon be razed, but she accepts it.

“It will be gone. I don’t want to be there when it goes down,” she said, “but it will be gone.”

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