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“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver—not aloud but to himself—that ten thousand River Commissions with the minds of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb or confine it, cannot say to it, “Go here’ or Go there,’ and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.”
— Mark Twain “ Life on the Mississippi”

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The record-setting and unprecedented flooding that lasted from the spring of 1993 into the early part of 1994 served as the catalyst for Missouri governments to look for solutions to the devastation and suffering caused by the massive floods.

As a result, voluntary acquisitions or buyouts of flood-prone properties became the choice of action using Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local government funds. The program has been widely successful and proved itself again during the floods of 2008.

Faced with the grim fact that 37,000 people were displaced from their homes for prolonged periods in the 1993 flooding, state leaders embarked on a buyout program that became a model for the nation.

In the book, Natural Hazard Mitigation; Recasting Disaster Policy and Planning (1998), authors David Godchalk, Timothy Beatley, Phillip Berke, and David Brower wrote: “The state of Missouri took advantage of a window of opportunity to make the system work in a way that appears to be unmatched in our case studies.”

Because of the large number of residents displaced, coupled with the prolonged flooding, state and local government leaders realized that success of the program would be measured by how quickly the buyouts took place
This intensified in May of 1995, when the state was inundated once again to nearly the same record levels of the 1993 events.

By that time, the program had gained popularity — 2,000 properties had been acquired in 50 separate communities.

“It was an endorsement that the effort was of great benefit to the victims devastated by repeated flooding, and we already had many satisfied customers,” says Buck Katt, SEMA’s deputy director at the time and the state’s main architect of the plan.

In the years following 1995, additional mitigation funds became available and the state continued the effort. To date, the state and local governments have completed buyouts in 99 separate communities totaling 4,045 properties.

The buyout effort cost the taxpayers just under $75 million. The fact that thousands of Missouri families permanently escaped the misery of future floods is, of course, obvious and very important. What may not be so obvious is that although the people are gone, the majority of the now vacant land has flooded more than once since 1993.

Significant flooding of much of the “bought out” properties has occurred in 2008. Communities along the Missouri River were for the most part spared this time but for many on the Mississippi River, it was a repeat of years past. Those families voluntarily participating in the buyout program following the 1993 era were spared the despair of being forced out of their homes, as flood waters once again inundated the property they used to own.

Hannibal resident Nancy Jackson had lived in her house for 22 years, so when the nearby Mississippi River flooded her property in 1993, it was especially hard for her to consider moving.

After suffering repeated flood events beginning in 1973, the 1993 event convinced her to take the buyout.

In 2008, the great river washed 6 to 8 feet of muddy water over her previously-owned property, and that of her 115 Hannibal neighbors, who were also bought out.

Arnold, Mo., situated at the confluence of the Meramec and the Mississippi, also took advantage of the buyout program. The acceptance of the program by city residents who lived in harm’s way was unique.

“The voluntary agreement of the owners of the 322 properties purchased by the city has removed all but six homes from the floodplain,” says Arnold’s Director of Administration Greg Hall. “A buyout program made the most sense for our city because we didn’t have any industries in the floodplain.”

The need for disaster assistance from the city as well as from FEMA’s assistance to families has been almost completely eliminated. Payments to families for the 1993 event were about $1.6 million. For the two disaster declarations for 2008 thus far, the total is $12,027.

Any discussion of the buyout effort in the State of Missouri would not be complete without a mention of the effort in St. Charles County. Damage to residential property was severe in many communities. In St. Charles County, the destruction was especially vivid. This may, in part, be due to the number of residential properties affected.

The buyout of more than 1,400 properties was the largest effort anywhere in the state. To the credit of the government officials in the county, a high percentage of the total buyout was completed by May of 1995, when the county and many other locations in the state once again were inundated to near record flood levels. In fact, some communities on the Mississippi River experienced a higher crest than that seen in 1993.

Here, as well as other locations, success of the program can by one measure be found in the number of applications FEMA received for Individual Assistance. For the 1993 event, 4,277 applications were recorded from St. Charles County with payments of more than $14 million. For the 1995 flood, an event similar to 1993, that number decreased to 333 and a little more than $216,000 in payments.

For the 2008 flood, it is estimated that 550 of the “bought-out” property sites were again flooded to depth of 5 to 8 feet depending on location.

It’s interesting to see other communities along the Mississippi by a comparison of the 1993 disaster and the dampening effect that buyout has had on the effect of the 2008 flood. The chart below provides information on 13 communities, including two counties in which buyouts took place after the 1993 flood and were also flooded again in 2008. Of the 3,146 properties purchased then, it is estimated that over 50 percent of them were again flooded in 2008.

Communities Properties purchased and demolished after 1993 floods Estimated number of buyout properties flooded in 2008without daage
Canton 2 2
Arnold 322 225
Cape Girardeau 134 60
Fenton 10 4
Hannibal 116 116
La Grange 12 12
Lincoln County 376 360
Piedmont 121 121
Portage Des Sioux 8 8
St Charles County 1410 550
St Louis County 550 130
St Mary 40 15
Winfield 45 20
Totals: 3,146 1,623

Individual Assistance payments, including grants made to residents of the 3,146 properties listed at these locations prior to the buyout (1993 floods) amounted to $33.2 million.

For the 2008 events, the areas flooded were similar to those of 1993. Because of the buyouts, Individual Assistance funding was unnecessary for families in the estimated 1,623 buyout sites that flooded again in 2008. This significantly contributed to the reduction of Individual Assistance payments—currently less than $2.1 million, in the 13 communities above.

Perhaps more striking is the fact that the cost to acquire all 3,146 properties amounted to about
$37 million. The reduction in Individual Assistance payments alone has offset 85 percent of the cost to acquire the 3,146 properties.

Voluntary participation in the buyout program, which offers the owner the pre-flood fair-market value as determined by a State of Missouri certified appraiser, can be a traumatic decision, especially in situations where many generations have called “home” a potential buyout property.
As hazard mitigation funds have become available once again to the State of Missouri for recent disasters, especially flooding events, interest in the buyout program is once again a topic of discussion among flood victims and community leaders.

“We are seeing that it pays to break the repetitive cycle of flooding and rebuilding,” says the State Hazard Mitigation Officer Sheila Huddleston. “It saves money but just as important, it eliminates the misery and despair families experience when they are flooded time and time again.”

Once homeowners have voluntarily participated in the program by selling their property to the local government, the land is deed-restricted and can only be used for open space and certain recreational activities. The specific parcel is no longer eligible for federal disaster assistance and is the property of the local government.

Many communities have transformed the restricted space into parks. For example, St. Louis County is using much of the acquired space as a network of interconnecting recreational trails.

“Our buyout was so successful at keeping people out of harm’s way and reducing damage,” says Susan Sedgwick Pohling, St. Louis County’s planning manager, “the impact for the 2008 flood events was minimal.”

The collateral benefit of the buyout effort in the reduction of U.S. Small Business Administration loans and National Flood Insurance payments for repetitive loss properties is not yet fully tabulated. A cost avoidance study has been initiated by FEMA that will document a wide array of costs that have been avoided due to the buyout. That information is not currently available. Local officials, however, recognize the benefit.

“Year after year, we saw the highest incidence of repetitive loss,” says Steve Lauer, Planning & Code Enforcement director for St. Charles County. Lauer estimates that 95 percent of the buyout properties were again flooded in 1995 with about 40 percent of them flooded in 2008.

The bottom line is an easy one to read—buyouts work and everyone wins.