Midwest’s Flood-prone Communities Consider Government Buyouts

July 18, 2008

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

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

Residents in areas that qualify can choose to sell their properties to their city or county, with 75 percent of the costs paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Communities that use the FEMA dollars agree to demolish structures on the properties and not develop the land, except for recreational use such as parks.

More than a half-dozen Iowa communities are likely to consider buyouts, said Brett Voorhees, spokesman for Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The state won’t know which communities will apply for funding until Sept. 12 when notices of interest are due.

Voorhees said it will be months before officials know how much money FEMA will provide. Typically, there’s not enough 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 intend to request $1.2 million from FEMA to buy up to 20 homes damaged when the Des Moines River breached a levee in June.

In southeastern Iowa, 400 residents of Oakville are still considering their options. Last month, the Iowa River broke through a levee and inundated nearly every building.

Officials in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, have been telling residents it could be a year or more before they know how much will be available for buyouts. Officials have said that half of the estimated 4,000 homes that were damaged will have to be demolished.

In Wisconsin, applications for the buyout program have been sent to 18 communities and will be sent to another eight, 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.”

Missouri’s Emergency Management Agency said 20 new mitigation projects had been proposed, including eight possible buyout plans.

In Illinois, the number of possible buyouts remains as murky as the Mississippi itself. In Keithsburg, a northwest Illinois community of some 700, Mayor Jim Stewart said FEMA crews still were assessing damage to about 80 homes and 20 businesses.

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

The agency maintains that 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.”

FEMA anticipates that this year’s flood will generate more requests for buyouts than it can accommodate

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