HOUSTON - There is a flurry of talk about large-scale home buyouts as one answer to reducing flood risk.
But the reality is any massive buyout plan is much easier said than done.
Consider the case of Adis Bolua, who has lived right across the street from Brays Bayou in Meyerland.
Her home has flooded three times in the past three years. But even with such repeated devastation, she is not sold on the idea of a FEMA buyout.
“I hate to do it, the family, my whole family says, ‘Sell it and leave, sell it and leave.’ It’s not easy,” Bolua said.
It’s not easy because Bolua said it’s been her “dream home” for the past 30 years.
Bolua said repairs from the Memorial Day flood in 2015 and the Tax Day Flood in 2016 totaled $400,000. The damage from Harvey will undoubtedly be six figures as well. But with every storm, federal flood insurance has paid up to fix up her home.
“That is the law, those people can choose to stay there,” said FEMA Spokesperson Peter Herrick.
Herrick said it’s important to remember FEMA buyouts are completely voluntary.
“The way the law is, there’s nothing to say, ‘Hey, listen, we’ve had enough, you need to get out,'” he said.
In Meyerland, there have been only a handful of buyouts over the past 30 years, according to the Harris County Flood Control District, which administers the buyout program. Even though Meyerland sits almost entirely in the 100-year-flood plain, county officials said other neighborhoods are actually worse off.
James Wade oversees property acquisition for the Harris County Flood Control District. He said 3,300 homes have been identified as top priorities for buyouts, with the majority located along Cypress Creek, Greens Bayou, Halls Bayou, White Oak Bayou, and the west fork of the San Jacinto River.
But Rice University Professor Jim Blackburn said that number isn’t enough. Blackburn is co-director of the SSPEED Center -- the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters.
“We’re talking probably tens of thousands of homes,” Blackburn said would be needed to really make a noticeable dent in reducing the flooding risk.
“You remove the house and open it up, and that creates more space for the water to flow without causing damage,” Blackburn said.
“That becomes a space for putting retention ponds in, so it fits in with sort of 'green fingers' coming into the city,” he said.
But the bottom line is often the bottom line. The estimated cost to demolish all 3,300 homes on the flood control district’s list is an estimated $650 million, according to Wade. He added of those identified, only 430 homeowners have agreed to go forward with a buyout program.
It’s why another approach is underway in Meyerland. Instead of demolishing, homeowners are elevating properties above base flood levels using Federal Mitigation Assistance grant money.
But so far, those federal funds have covered a few dozen homeowners. There are many more homeowners wanting to take advantage of the program as well, like Kevin York.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” York said.
He and his wife bought their Meyerland home last November and sank $100,000 in renovations to the home, only to flood 3 feet deep during Hurricane Harvey.
“We’re at the point that, we don’t know how we’re going to rebuild ourselves,” York said. “Being in our mid- to late-60s, that’s scary."
York and many others are in another type of bind. If their damage exceeds half of their home’s value, they would be required to elevate their home under City of Houston building permit rules.
Elevation costs easily can run between $100,000 to $200,000 depending on the size of the home and complexity of the job. Flood insurance usually isn’t enough to pay for that, and without a grant, many could be left in financial dire straits.
Interested in a voluntary buyout? Fill out a Notice of Voluntary Interest Form here, or call the Harris County Flood Control District Home Buyout Hotline at either (713)-684-4020 or (713)-684-4035.
Live in the City of Houston and interested in elevating your home? Tap/click here for more information.
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