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Debt-Laden FEMA Is Slow To Act On Program That Buys Flooded Houses


Tens of thousands of Americans live in homes that flood repeatedly, and sometimes repairs wind up costing more than the value of the home. FEMA has the power to help these homeowners by buying them out so they can move somewhere else, but the agency is in debt, and the buyout process can take years. NPR's Sarah McCammon and Christopher Joyce explain.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: There's something going on around the country with flooding. More and more homes are flooding more and more often. It's costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and it's not just happening in places that got hit hard by the recent hurricanes, like Texas and Florida.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: In Charleston, S.C., John Knipper bought his house not quite three years ago after he'd retired. He knew the place had flooded back in 2008, but it didn't seem like a big concern, until one day after a heavy rain storm his unit flooded. About a month later, it flooded again and again and again, four times in just over two years.

JOHN KNIPPER: The biggest problem is you're in constant fear of a heavy rain. So if we get more than, say, four inches of rain, you have to move stuff upstairs of value.

MCCAMMON: Knipper's first floor is pretty sparse with a small table and a couch and not a lot else.

KNIPPER: And then the upstairs.

MCCAMMON: No carpet on the first few steps.

KNIPPER: No, I took that off.

MCCAMMON: He keeps most of his belongings stacked in a bedroom on his second floor. Knipper is president of the homeowners association at Bridge Pointe, a 32-unit complex in a quiet neighborhood in Charleston with a largely elderly population.

JOYCE: He and his neighbors have rebuilt their homes several times using flood insurance payouts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

MCCAMMON: And as long as they keep their flood insurance, FEMA will keep paying, but it's the people living here who actually have to do the work of hiring contractors, buying new furniture and sometimes making repairs themselves. Ted Yeager is 88, and he wants out.

TED YEAGER: When I moved in here, I thought this was going to be my last home, you know, living the rest of my life out of here and - up until we started these repetitive floods.

JOYCE: Bridge Pointe is in a special category known as severe repetitive loss properties. These are properties that have been rebuilt with flood insurance payouts at least four times or ones where the repair costs now exceed the value of the home. And the number of these properties is growing. Nicholas Pinter is a geologist at the University of California at Davis who studies flooding. He says there are now 30,000 such properties, some rebuilt 30 to 40 times at a huge cost.

NICHOLAS PINTER: The worst-case scenario is - what is it? - like, 18 times the value of the structure paid out from taxpayer funds.

JOYCE: It would be cheaper to just buy these properties and tear them down and prohibit rebuilding on the site. And FEMA has the power to do that, but it's not working.

PINTER: This problem hasn't gone away. It is so much worse.

MCCAMMON: For one thing, FEMA is billions of dollars in debt. According to Robert Moore from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the buyout program has been starved.

ROBERT MOORE: For every hundred dollars we spend to rebuild people's homes, Congress gives FEMA a paltry $1.72 to actually help people move somewhere that's safer from flooding.

MCCAMMON: And even when there is money to buy out some long-suffering homeowner, it can take years.

MOORE: The real problem is that it takes so long for somebody to go through the process and get to the end, and they never know if they're actually going to make it to the end.

JOYCE: NRDC and other groups are trying to change that so that if you're a repeatedly flooded homeowner you can lock into a buyout with FEMA before the next flood at an agreed upon price. Congress is currently weighing whether to give FEMA that option.

MCCAMMON: But that's too late for the people at Bridge Pointe townhomes, some of whom asked for a buyout more than a year ago. I called up John Knipper the day after the remnants of Hurricane Irma had passed through his region. Irma caused more flooding all over Charleston, including his house. His power wasn't back on yet.

So you're at home.

KNIPPER: I'm actually in a car now. That's the only way I can charge my cellphone.

MCCAMMON: He told me he got several more inches of water. So again, he's ripping up carpet, tearing out baseboards, removing water-soaked insulation. He says he's sick of waiting for FEMA to make a decision.

KNIPPER: Maybe five years from now, John, we will give you the money for your house. But, you know, we don't know when. So why keep me in that [expletive] place thinking that I'm going to be bought out in three months and the three months and the three months and the three months keeps getting extended. And that's what's really aggravating people.

MCCAMMON: Knipper told me that at least one elderly couple has moved out since I visited Bridge Pointe. He says he thinks he'll stick it out a little longer, but some of his neighbors feel like they just can't take one more flood. I'm Sarah McCammon.

JOYCE: And I'm Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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