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Uncle Sam wants to buy your flood-prone home

By Emilie Tavel LivezeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 9, 1980


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.

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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."

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.