CHARLESTON – As West Virginians know all too well, in many areas of the state flash floods are frequent visitors, and an increasing number of homeowners have decided to seek higher ground.
One family in Stollings saw its two-story house inundated time and again by the nearby Guyandotte River. Flood insurance paid for most of the repeated repairs and cleanups, but no policy can make up for the stress of being repeatedly flooded. And as the disasters continue, a vulnerable house inevitably becomes worth less and less.
The Logan County Commission had determined that the flash flooding of 2004 caused enormous damage to many homes in the Stollings neighborhood, and several homeowners chose to take advantage of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “buyout” process under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. After the flood of May, 2007, the family also decided it was time to move and accepted the county’s buyout offer.
These projects are normal real-estate transactions. Homeowners are paid fair market value for their homes as calculated before the damage occurred. Once the property is purchased, the structures are removed and the property becomes public open space or green space. It can never be developed or sold to private parties. It can be used as a public park, can be leased for agricultural use, but no structures of any kind can be erected thereon.
The Buyout program is completely voluntary on the part of the property owner and the community. Buyout, or “acquisition,” projects are administered by the state and local communities, be they towns or counties. While FEMA shoulders 75 percent of the costs, it does not buy houses directly from the property owners.
The property owners do not apply to the state for buyouts, but the community may sponsor applications on their behalf. Those applications are prepared by the communities with the input of homeowners whose properties have suffered heavy damage. The applications are completed after the state has advised the community of any state priorities or special restrictions. The state and community work together to identify where buyouts would make the most sense.
The state then submits whatever applications they deem appropriate for action for FEMA’s review, which ensures the rules are being followed, the environment is protected and the buyouts would be a cost-effective use of funds.
If and when FEMA approves the purchase, the community begins to acquire the property. The actual transaction is done by the community or the county. FEMA warns that the process is not quick. The whole buyout process from the day of the disaster to the property settlement can take up to two years.
The family in Stollings has now moved to safer ground. The house is gone and the property is an empty, grassy open space. When the floods hit Logan County in March of this year, this property had no house left to damage or destroy, and the open spaces where houses once sat helped reduce flooding downstream.