CARBONDALE — After a record flood year, homeowners in Illinois’ river communities are requesting state buyouts at a significantly higher rate, according to Ron Davis, who administers the buyout program for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Davis’ team has received pre-applications, called “notices of intent,” on about 375 houses and 14 businesses statewide, he said, representing an estimated $48,053,000 in property and structure value.
“I have no doubt the spike is due to this year’s flooding,” he said. “Some of these places are saying they’re just tired of it.”
The state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency offer “flood mitigation” buyouts to help remove from use properties that flood consistently.
The buyouts help flood victims salvage some value from their homes, help local governments clean up deteriorating properties, and carry long-term benefits for the federal government, since a large portion of flood insurance claims are paid out with FEMA taxpayer funds.
Many of this year’s buyout requests came from February flooding in northern Illinois, Davis said, amid the wettest January-to-May period on record. Other requests are carryovers from disasters in past years.
Despite extensive flooding in southern Illinois, Davis’ office did not receive a single notice of intent from any community south of Swansea.
“It puzzles us sometimes,” he said. “We sent letters to county board chairmen and mayors up and down the river,” informing them about the program.
Some communities may not understand that the state buyout program is separate from FEMA’s, he said, and others may not need it, since some southern Illinois communities like Thebes have had extensive buyouts already, in the most flood-prone areas.
Joe Aden, who has been mayor of East Cape Girardeau for nearly four decades, said he was only aware of the federal mitigation program.
“I haven’t received one word,” about state buyouts, he said.
As seep water recedes and village employees tally the damage in East Cape, Aden said he’s aware of two affected homes that are now uninhabitable.
“Some folks are interested in a buyout,” he said. “But most of the ones that I’ve seen and talked to, their attitudes are great. They’ve weathered through this crisis and a lot have come back.”
The next few months, Aden said, will determine whether his town of just over 300 people sees permanent population loss.
With preliminary applications in hand, the IDNR will now ask local jurisdictions to pick the homes they consider top priority, budgeting for purchase and demolition costs, which they must absorb until state reimbursement.
Over the next three weeks, municipalities will submit full applications on those properties, including detailed information about the location, history and conditions of each structure.
Then the IDNR will do cost-benefit analyses on each application, picking the buyouts that will generate the greatest long-term governmental savings.
“We’re looking at structures that were either essentially destroyed or have been repetitively damaged,” by flooding, Davis explained. “We also give points to jurisdictions that do a better job with flood plain enforcement, making sure people are building in the right places in the future.”
The IDNR’s mitigation program is funded by legislative appropriation, which varies greatly from year to year.
Two years ago state lawmakers put $18 million into the program, and this year there’s $13 million available for buyouts, Davis said.
“Before that we hadn’t gotten any money from the legislature for seven years,” he added. “Part of the reason participation is so high right now is because people know there’s actually money to be spent, and people are seeing there’s money being spent in other towns.”
Ultimately, most of the program’s beneficiaries will receive pre-flood market value for their damaged properties if they take the buyout offer, Davis said.
Communities that missed the IDNR’s June deadline may still have opportunities to seek buyouts from FEMA if their counties receive a disaster declaration from President Donald Trump.
Trump will have that option if statewide flood fight expenses and damages are found to meet or exceed $19.2 million this year, something many southern Illinois emergency management officials expect.
The disaster declaration would trigger several types of federal aid, including support to repair public infrastructure and federal mitigation buyout assistance routed through the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
Both state and federal programs offer the same benefit to homeowners: a chance to leave the floodplain and salvage the value of their property.
But the Illinois program, which predates FEMA’s national version, can be months or years quicker, Davis said.
“There’s more bureaucratic red tape to jump through with FEMA,” said Davis, who administered FEMA buyouts in a previous job at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. “When Mt. Vernon flooded badly last year we were able to get buyouts approved by December. If it was up to federal funds they would’ve been still waiting.”