Government

As flooding becomes more frequent, buyouts upending more communities

Cedar Rapids' experience being repeated in Midwest

Tammy Kilgore watches Nov. 18 while her former home is demolished as part of a voluntary buyout in flood-prone Mosby, Mo. Kilgore accepted a $45,000 payment to leave her home of 38 years and has moved to a nearby community. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)
Tammy Kilgore watches Nov. 18 while her former home is demolished as part of a voluntary buyout in flood-prone Mosby, Mo. Kilgore accepted a $45,000 payment to leave her home of 38 years and has moved to a nearby community. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)
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MOSBY, Mo. — Tammy Kilgore raised the giant claw of a John Deere excavator high in the air, then slammed it down on the roof of the house where she had spent nearly her entire adult life.

The shingles crunched, but not much else. So she did it again and again, each time taking a bigger bite with the claw until the roof above her bedroom caved.

“Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed.

The machine’s operator had given her the chance to start demolishing her own home. It’s one of dozens of flood-prone houses being torn down in this small riverside town northeast of Kansas City under a federally funded buyout program intended to reduce the risks and costs from future flooding.

When the voluntary buyouts are complete, nearly half of Mosby, population 190, will be gone, leaving a patchwork of holdout homes and bare lots.

Similar buyout programs have played out in communities across the nation — including in Cedar Rapids — that, like Mosby, were ravaged by floods and hurricanes.

Over the past three decades, federal and local governments have spent more than $5 billion to buy tens of thousands of vulnerable properties across the United States, according to an Associated Press analysis.

In the wake of the historic 2008 flood, for instance, Cedar Rapids’ voluntary flood buyout program had invested about $128 million to acquire and demolish 1,356 flood-damaged properties when the program closed in December 2014, city information shows.

And buyouts continue.

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The 2015 Cedar Rapids flood control master plan put 50 properties that had not participated in the earlier voluntary buyout in or near the path of a planned system of flood walls and levees, prompting a new program. Since 2015, the city has acquired more than 22 of these properties either because the owners came forward or through tax sales.

The remaining properties are located on the west side of the city, primarily in the Time Check neighborhood.

Property owners, who receive annual reminders of the buyout program, can approach the city any time for a buyout between now and when flood system construction is imminent and a buyout becomes mandatory.

This year’s devastating flooding in the Midwest, which caused billions of dollars of damage in more than a dozen states, is likely to lead to more home buyouts.

In Iowa alone, a dozen cities and counties have inquired about the potential of buying out as many as 660 properties.

In western Iowa, about 70 households in Mills County and 147 households in Pacific Junction — two areas hit hard by flooding last March — have expressed interested in voluntary buyouts, the Omaha World Herald reported in late October.

In the future, more buyouts could be necessary nationwide as climate change leads to rising seas and more frequent and intense rainstorms. Though buyouts are disruptive, the United States saves $7 in avoided costs for every $1 spent through the federally funded grants to acquire or demolish flood-prone buildings, according to a study for the National Institute of Building Sciences.

“I can tell you mitigation works; it’s very successful. It saves the pain and anguish of people that get flooded,” former FEMA Administrator James Lee Witt said during a recent session hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts on ways to reduce local flood risks.

For those facing buyouts of their family land, though, the process can be a blessing and curse.

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It can provide a fresh start for flood-weary residents who choose to leave, but sever a sense of community for those left behind.

And the process can be stressful: Kilgore, 56, had a heart attack in September after a long day of packing. But she was back on a cool November morning to watch her house come down.

As Kilgore climbed into the excavator, longtime neighbor Betty Cazzell watched somberly from across the chain-link fence where the two would often chat.

Cazzell, 86, opted against applying for a buyout. She didn’t want the hassle of leaving a town where she spent all but 10 years of her life.

“I’ve seen some changes, but they’ve been kind of gradual,” Cazzell said sadly. “This is kind of like a bomb exploding or something. It’s just all at once, and my neighbors are gone.”

The Associated Press and B.A., Morelli of The Gazette contributed.

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