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Many factors considered in flood buyouts

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DeKALB – The amount of rainwater that fills a home is not the only factor when determining a government buyout of properties affected by flooding.

The value of damages and cost of repairs isn’t the only measure, either.

Rather, a number of factors make the case – and they can be easily or not-so-easily computed by the local government. Acting as an applicant for federal funds, that government must identify, prioritize and submit to state and federal authorities, hoping that the selections made are the right ones – the ones that will result in funding assistance.

The city of DeKalb this week entered into the second phase of buyouts in response to severe flooding that affected much of the county in August 2007. The DeKalb City Council has agreed to use $868,521 in funds provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to purchase and demolish six homes, with the local share being $289,507.

By June 30, 2011, the date FEMA requires the project to be complete, two-thirds of homes identified by the city as priority acquisitions will have been returned to open space. The first phase, which comprised four homes bought and demolished in the Lions Park area, was completed earlier this year.

This is a significant step in the stormwater mitigation process outlined by a task force brought together after the 2007 flood. It “knocks out the worst ones,” DeKalb City Engineer Joel Maurer said.

Sitting in his office with floodplain maps and colored printouts of flooded homes at hand, Maurer explained the amount of work that went into the grant application to FEMA.

After the 2007 flood, the city’s building department surveyed the initial damage. Then, the engineering department measured water marks on buildings and compared those levels to 100-year flood levels, which means that there is a 1-percent chance each year that floodwater will reach that level. They came pretty darn close.

From there, 16 homes – on Clifford Drive, Fairmont Drive, Colby Court, David Avenue, Dawn Court and West Taylor Street – were identified as being potential candidates for a buyout.

The city submitted 10 of those for grant assistance in 2008, because it seemed to be a reasonable request. It failed.

Without positive results from the first application, the city went ahead and purchased the four top-ranked properties in the Lions Park area through a community development block grant last spring, and resubmitted the application for the remaining six properties.

The hard data that is given most weight when prioritizing a buyout is a FEMA-approved benefit-cost ratio. This, Maurer explained, is derived from a project’s total net benefits today divided by the total project cost estimate. The quotient must be at least 1.0 for FEMA to consider a project, he said.

The original submittal of 10 homes had a benefit-cost ratio of over 2.0, Maurer said. In fact, the highest-ranked property, at 814 West Taylor Street, had an estimated $948,356 in benefits if it were to be torn down and $159,800 in costs to do so – a ratio of 5.93. That house was purchased earlier this year.

Beyond the numbers

But much of the mitigation process goes beyond such calculations. First, the benefit-cost analysis is based on a lot of unknowns – future assumptions and cost estimates.

The benefits that are counted are damages and losses that would be incurred in the future if nothing is done. These, according to FEMA, are physical damages, loss-of-function costs, injuries and casualties and emergency-management costs.

Physical damages to a residence are easy to count, Maurer said. But when a flood disrupts utility services, closes roads and requires clean up of debris and contamination, those costs escalate quickly.

“To us, it’s important to mitigate lots of homes,” Maurer said. “We look at the community impact versus just the residential impact.”

That’s also why homes near Lions Park were selected in the first round of buyouts, even though a home on Fairmont Drive – near Hillcrest and First Street – had a higher benefit-cost ratio than one on Colby Court, which is near the park.

The grant process takes into consideration census data – which indicates the neighborhood contains mostly low- to moderate-income households. But individual homeowner incomes are not taken into account.

And lastly, the way the river flows – or wants to flow – is a clear indication of what areas need to be cleared out.

“Lions Park is the first area in town that will get over-bank flooding,” Maurer said.

The Kishwaukee River takes a sharp bend east into the park, so excess water naturally spills north into Colby Court, Dawn Court and David Avenue.

After this grant from FEMA is used, city officials don’t expect more buyout activity for a while. Maurer said he’s spoken with other homeowners who want to sell, but without another funding source at hand, the public assistance stops.

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