As Floods Keep Coming, Cities Pay Residents to Move


NASHVILLE — Jonna Laidlaw was terrorized by rain. Her house, with its lovely screened-in back porch, had flooded some 20 times since 2001, from a few inches to six feet. She and her husband would do their repairs with help from their flood insurance, but before long it would flood again.

“Every time it sprinkled I got terrified,” she said.

When city officials offered to buy the house last year, she and her husband gladly said yes. They have since moved to higher ground.

Nashville is trying to move people like the Laidlaws away from flood-prone areas. The voluntary program uses a combination of federal, state and local funds to offer market value for their homes. If the owners accept the offer, they move out, the city razes the house and prohibits future development. The acquired land becomes an absorbent creekside buffer, much of it serving as parks with playgrounds and walking paths.

Climate change is increasing the program’s urgency. While a number of cities around the country have similar relocation projects to address increased flooding, disaster mitigation experts consider Nashville’s a model that other communities would be wise to learn from: The United States spends far more on helping people rebuild after disasters than preventing problems.

David Maurstad, who heads the National Flood Insurance Program, said buyouts were the most permanent way to mitigate against future flood hazards. “Rebuilding out of harm’s way can help avoid future devastation in a way that flood insurance cannot,” he said.

Faye Sesler is another happy seller. A realtor, it had been her idea to purchase a home in 2012 as a rental unit. She and her husband soon discovered that the lovely creek behind the house could end up in the house. And while her husband, a contractor, could handle repairs, neither of them was happy about it.

“My husband, every time it rained, he’d say, ‘You better hope it won’t flood.” The city’s program, she said, “was a marriage saver.”

They sold in 2016 after attending a community meeting, where “I was amazed that so many people didn’t want to sell. What I wanted to do was get them and shake them and say ‘listen to this — it’s going to flood again.” Carol Mayes has tried to stay. She moved back to Nashville from Washington, D.C., in 2008 to take care of her mother, who died four years later. She now lives in her home, which flooded in 2010. She refused the city’s offer, but many neighbors took it.

Mr. Osman, the Illinois floodplain manager, said it could also be hard to get older people to accept buyouts, as well as people in poorer neighborhoods. “Nobody wants to start a mortgage again when they’re retired,” Mr. Osman said. In poorer Illinois communities, fair market value for a home might turn out to be just $10,000, and “you can’t buy a mobile home for that,” he said. “It’s a struggle, and I don’t have a good answer.”

Nicholas Pinter, the associate director of the center for watershed sciences at the University of California, Davis, said the challenges to “overcoming social inertia” are so high because of “the intense sense of place that people have.”

Still, even though moving people can be expensive and contentious, he said, “it looks like we’re going to have to look at a lot more flood relocations in the future.”



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