Uncle Sam wants to buy your flood-prone home

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A property owner in Scituate, MASS., Broke into tears of gratitude when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) telephoned her recently offering to buy her shorefront property and turn it permanently into open public land.

For ninety two years she had been hoping against hope someone would be willing to do this. Her modest house, sitting within feet of the Atlantic Ocean's high-water mark, was one of more than 100 houses in Scituate destroyed by the 1978 blizzardly northeaster that also damaged another 100 structures in this world-hit community in th e state.

"She had gone through the most traumatic experience in her whole life when the house was destroyed," Edward A. Thomas, New England director of FEMA's Flood Insurance and Mitigation Program, explains. "She certainly did not want to rebuild for herself. Nor could she bring herself to sell the bare lot for someone else to build on. She didn't want anyone else to go through what she had experienced. When we called her, she just couldn't believe it."

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Until two years ago, 40 owners of small, inexpensive houses on the Merrimack River in the resort town of Arnold, Mo., had never had federal flood insurance -- but they had plenty of flooding. Since then, whenever the river has gone on a rampage, Washington has paid losses equal to almost half the value of their cottages.

"At first it was thought that these people didn't want to move, that they were 'river rats.' It's not true at all!" Gloria Jimenez, federal insurance administrator, exclaims. "They were all trapped in the situation. At first they didn't think we were serious about offering to buy up their property and turn it into open land. They just didn't believe that anybody was willing to help them, because they are all working-class people who are not so poor as to qualify for HUD [Housing and Urban Development] programs.

"Now they are all very enthusiastic about it. We have had no delays in getting sale contracts signed. They are just wonderful to work with. And the community is very cooperative, too. They are going to turn these 40 riverfront properties into a public park."

Such instances are just a start. But hold a wet finger to a gale-force wind and it isn't hard to detect a historic change brewing in how federal, state, and local governments in America are beginning to respond to natural disasters.

The shift in policy now beginning is from so-called "structural" to "nonstructural" solutions. That is, away from rebuilding properties the way they were before a disaster with sea walls and dams to protect them, and toward moving people and property out of the path of battering coastal hurricanes and roaring, swollen rivers.

For generations, the federal government has thrown up costly dams, levees, and sea walls to shield buildings from coastal and river flooding. In many cases it has been a losing battle. The very presence of a sea wall, for instance, can cause a scouring action that ruins beaches by sucking sand out to sea and throwing it up somewhere else. It is this very fluid, easily movable nature of sand and sand dunes that makes barrier beaches such an excellent natural protection against storm damage. Now for the first time, Uncle Sam is springing the trap for economically boxed-in owners of flood- prone property by a program of land acquisition.

Buried way down in the fine print of the National flood Control Act of 1968 (amended in 1973), Section 1362 permits the federal government to buy up flood plain property. But not until last spring were funds made available -- $5.4 million as an initial appropriation, with another $5.4 million budgeted for fiscal '81.

Since then, FEMA has been identifying property in the most hazardous zones and is negotiating for the purchase of 114 parcels ranging from 25 houses devastated by mud slides in San Bernardino, Calif., to some wind-swept lots in Scituate where what once were concrete front steps are now only stairways leading to the stars. Five beachfront parcels have already been purchased in Gulf Shores, Fla., where Hurricane Frederic last year damaged some 200 properties.

Rivers around Mt. St. Helens, Wash., are so silted up with volcanic ash that the Federal Insurance Administration has revised its maps to show that a minor rainstorm there can produce a catastrophic flood.

The homes of about 26 families who were living on the Tootle River in Cowlitz County, Wash., are completely buried in mud. "There is no way they can ever be repaired," Mrs. Jimenez says, "and it is foolish to rebuild them there. So we are helping the people to get out permanently."

So far, FEMA is finding that people who are offered the opportunity to sell their flood-prone property without financial loss are more than eager to snap it up.

"There is a common belief that some people are river rats who just love to live by the river and don't mind being flooded," Mrs. Jimenez says. "I couldn't believe that after I went out to my first flood and saw what it is like when you have water two or three feet deep, or sometimes as high as the ceiling, in your house.

"It is the most horrible thing you can imagine! Everything you own completely ruined. And the most terrible, sour smell pervades the place. Then mildew sets in. Even if you do substantial renovation on these houses, they have a smell in them that you can't get out.

"These people carry with them psychic scars from flooding. Every time it rains, children say, 'Mommy! Mommy! Is our house going to flood again?'

"One woman told me that every time it rains she can't sleep at night because when the flood occurred in her home, it happened during the night, and she has this horrible feeling that it is going to happen again and again."

The flood plain of a river is as much a part of it as the riverbed itself, Mrs. Jimenez points out, and periodically the river is going to reclaim it.

None of the Section 1362 projects are large. But she thinks each will have an effect, because in every case the federal government is requiring state and local governments to improve their flood plain management. "We hope this land purchase program will create recognition on the part of local citizens that these areas are very, verydangerous, are not suitable for rebuilding, and that what we are trying to do is make better use of these vulnerable lands."

Arizona is one state that didn't need such a nudge. In December 1978 rivers all over the state surged over their banks, washing away bridges and highways, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes, and causing some fatalities. Gov. Bruce E. Babbitt saw at once that it didn't make sense to rebuild three small communities near Phoenix that had been built right in the flood plain. He persuaded the state legislature to appropriate funds to relocate all the families who had been living in these hazardous zones. FEMA is now helping him complete the relocation.

"The exciting thing is that the state itself saw the need, took the lead, and put its own money into it. This is the kind of thing we would like to encourage ," Mrs. Jimenez says.

Baltimore County, a 610-square-mile area north of Baltimore, is another self-starter. Most of its land lies in river basins where occupants of some 250 residences were suffering the anguish of evacuating their homes five or six times a year. Between 1972 and '75, floods cost $85 million in damage. And not a cent of it was spent on removing the cause. In one year about 15 persons lost their lives.

"We were determined to solve the problem ourselves," John D. Seyffert, then the county's director of planning, recalls. Under his direction, the county drew up a $26 million plan that needed no money from Washington. The county simply reordered the priorities of its public works, parks, and recreation departments, floated a bond, and began relocating these families out of the flood plain by buying up their houses.

About half of the owners relocated so far have bought back their houses and moved them to safe, dry ground. The county is demolishing the rest and turning the whole area into a riverside park system of about 400 acres.

Mrs. Jimenez was so impressed with this kind of intelligent flood plain management that she hired Mr. Seyffert. He is now director of the technical assistance division of FEMA's Natural Hazard Reduction and Mitigation Office.

As a town, Scituate is still trying to hang onto the old structural method of dealing with flood disasters. The issue is controversial. But at a special town meeting on June 23, residents voted down the federal government's offer to turn over to Scituate, free of charge, whatever parcels FEMA could buy from willing sellers whose houses were wiped out in the '78 blizzard. Those voters figured that settled the issue.

The same meeting also voted to ask the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for matching funds to build a $750,000 stone revetment along one of its beaches -- Humarock Beach. Of 13 houses destroyed on that beachfront, 12 have been rebuilt , according to Mrs. Corinne Higgins, a member of Scituate's Conservation Commission.

But on Aug. 8, during National Coast Week in this "Year of the Coast," Massachusetts Gov. Edward J. King became the first state chief executive in the nation to issue an executive order to protect barrier beaches. It:

* Prohibits use of Massachusetts funds and United States grants for projects that would encourage construction in hazard-prone barrier beaches.

* Gives top priority to buying out and relocating willing sellers of barrier beach property and lowest priority to helping owners who want to rebuild.

* Allows state anti-erosion projects only to keep navigation channels open, not to save beach property.

In view of this executive order, it now appears most unlikely that the state will provide the matching funds that Scituate wants for the revetments on Humarock Beach.

On Sept. 9, Governor King further announced that the state itself would take title from FEMA and manage selected properties in critical environmental areas, such as barrier beaches and wetlands, which were destroyed in the '78 northeaster and have not been rebuilt.

FEMA has identified 18 such parcels in Scituate and is now negotiating with their owners. It is also looking for properties in other Massachusetts communities that will qualify for this voluntary program. All such land acquired by FEMA and turned over to the state or to willing local communities will be maintained as open for public use.

"What we are doing," Ed Thomas says, "Is offering owners a very generous market price. We will give them the value of their land (based on current appraisals) plus the value of their house that was there in 1978, minus whatever we have already paid them on their federal flood insurance claim.

"This breakthrough is important, because it is beginning to reverse the spiral of tremendously increasing federal expenditures in flood-prone areas. In 1978 we were estimating annual flood losses of $1.5 billion. Now we are estimating annual losses of between $3 and $3.5 billion -- in the space of two years!"

The nation's ability to track hurricans has greatly reduced fatalities since the dreadful Galveston Island hurricane off Texas in 1900, when 6,000 lives were lost. But property losses are far greater than ever, not only because of the tremendous and growing increase in development on barrier islands and beaches but because of inflation. For both these reasons, a major storm today would cost much more than a storm of equal force a few years ago.

"The federal government has realized we simply can't have business as usual any more with disasters," Mr. Thomas says. The nation just cannot affort it. That is all there is to it.

"This new tool is one more thing that enables us to mitigate storm damage. Every property so purchased represents a permanet savings to taxpayers on payments for any future storm damage."

Mrs. Jimenez feels it is very important when disaster strikes to seize the opportunity to correct past land-use mistakes. Starting with the Jackson, Miss. , flood on Easter weekend, 1979, which caused $500 million damage, she has been sending out a hazard mitigation team to identify opportunities to relocate families as well as water and sewer lines out of flood zones, and to work with communities on new patterns of land use.

"We found, however, that it was very difficult to accomplish a lot of things we wanted to do because we did not have the cooperation of other federal agencies," she says. "Up until now we have had frustrating instances in which we were working with a town to keep it from rebuilding in a certain area when another federal agency would step in and fund a school or a hospital or housing for the elderly right in that flood plain. But we knew that if we had all the agencies singing from the same sheet of music, we really could accomplish a great deal."

Finally, after much urging by Mrs. Jimenez, the federal Office of Management and Budget, which holds the purse strings for federal agencies, issued an order July 10 directing all federal agencies having authority to plan or build to join in an interagency task force led by FEMA, with Mrs. Jimenez as coordinator.

The directive stresses that the nonstructural approach is by far the best. In other words, get people and property out of the way of floods and storms instead of building barriers to protect them there. This formalizes what FEMA has been trying to do for the last two years.

"The concept," Mrs. Jimenez explains, "is that when a disaster occurs, a team , made up of representatives from federal agencies and state governments, would go out and very promptly analyze the opportunities for hazard mitigation and file a report with the interagency task force in Washington, which would then put together packages of federal programs to accomplish outlined goals."

For example, funds from the Department of the Interior and the US Army Corps of Engineers could be used to create an attractive urban waterfront renewal. HUD could provide funds for new housing for family relocation, while the Department of Energy could be tapped for original ideas on how the new housing could be constructed to take advantage of solar energy.

At the same time, Mrs. Jimenez is toughening up requirements for federal flood insurance. As of Jan. 1, 1981, the cost of insuring property will rise an average of about 30 percent. In coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes, where losses have been heavy, the rate increase will be higher than that.

FEMA is also coming out Jan. 1 with more stringent standards for new construction in coastal zones. Pilings will have to be deep enough to withstand a 100-year flood (a flood having a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year) and high enough to be safe from storm-height waves.

In mapping coastal waters, the agency had means for determining only still-water heights. At FEMA's request, the National Academy of Sciences has developed a method for measuring storm surge and wave heights. The result is that when FEMA calculates elevations for its new maps, requirements for pilings will range from 1 1/2 to 2 times their present heights.

The government's new policy of buying up property from willing sellers and turning it over to local or state governments is a first step in an attempt to halt the cycle of houses being destroyed and of owners having no option but to rebuild or sell to those who will.

Dr. Lester B. Smith Jr., A geologist who heads up the Scientific and Engineering Section of Massachusetts's Coastal Zone Management Office, call FEMA's new policy "sensible." HE feels it is very wise to initiate it now so it will be in place when future storms occur. Had property owners in Scituate been able in '78 to sell out to Uncle Sam and walk away with a clean conscience and no financial loss, many of them, he believes, would have done so.

"Coastal storm damage," he says, "is basically an economic problem that has other ramifications -- human safety and environemntal protection. The cycle of destruction followed by reconstruction will continue forever unless we pose an alternative to it. This new policy of purchasing storm- prone property provides that option. It makes it attractive not to rebuild."

For those now on the fence about selling out to Uncle Sam, future storms may help them decide.

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