Iowans Weigh Pros, Cons of Buyouts

September 2, 2008

With nearly 200 homeowners in Iowa thinking about buyouts after their homes were damaged or destroyed by flooding this year, disaster officials warn government programs could have unintended consequences.

In some cases, towns could be left financially strapped. In others, towns could disappear off the map.

Flood officials say residents and community leaders need to think carefully before deciding whether to approve buyouts.

“The integral part of the program and why it’s such a difficult decision for officials is that it is turned into green space forever,” said Bret Voorhees, a spokesman for the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division. “This is a long-term recovery program that could change the very look of a city.”

The community of Chelsea survived the floods of 1993, but not without a struggle.

About one-third of the town’s homes and businesses were removed from Chelsea’s tax rolls after the ’93 floods and its population dropped from 336 to 287, according to the 2000 census.

As a result, important project, such as street repairs, were delayed for years until city officials could balance its diminished resources.

At least 40 of the 90 homes that remained in the original lower portion of Chelsea also had flood damage this year.

Marty Wymore, executive director of the Region 6 Planning Commission, says more than half the families are interested in a buyout program.

“The more houses you take off tax rolls, the more it’s going to affect the individual communities,” said Mayor Roger Ochs.

Because of federal rules, many of Chelsea’s empty lots can’t be redeveloped.

Dozens of other towns are facing similar decisions following this year’s floods.

Officials in places like Oakville, which was entirely flooded, say buyouts could threaten their town’s existence.

“It could devastate our community. It’s between survival and not,” said Oakville Mayor Benita Grooms. “If all the people who say they want a buyout get it, then the town would be no more.”

The federal Hazard Mitigation Grant program generally pays for about 75 percent of city’s flood mitigation costs, which results in moving or demolishing houses in flood zones after paying homeowners for the value of their homes.

The program is voluntary and legal maneuvers, such as eminent domain, cannot be used to force people to leave.

State Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, said some families stay because acquisition programs can’t pay them enough to replace their home. He said he is working with other lawmakers to try to fill in the gap.

“We can’t just say the flood did it and it’s too bad,” Staed said. “We’re better than that.”

One person who says she won’t leave is Donna Morgan, who is unemployed and refused to move from her flood-soaked home in Chelsea.

Morgan said her home is valued at $14,000 and even with a buyout offer, she wouldn’t be able to fine an affordable place to live. So instead, she’s using about $18,000 in government aid to begin making repairs.

“If I have to, I’ll buy a canoe,” said Morgan, who sleeps on an air mattress. “My beds float. I’ll paddle my bed down the river before I’ll give up my house.”

Source: The Des Moines Register.

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