The best way to deal with floods might simply be to pack up and
leave. Indeed, the hottest trend in flood managementthe top
priority for Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood mitigation
strategyis acquiring homes and businesses in flood-prone areas
and either moving them or tearing them down. Since 1993, FEMA has
spent about $1 billion acquiring 26,929 structures and elevating
another 2,800 nationwide. And the Midwest is prime territory.
In fact, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wis., was one of the
first to move. After decades of floods from the Kickapoo River forced
the town to rebuild time after time, often with federal money, the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a $3.5 million levee to protect
the town. The village rejected the levee plan and instead proposed
moving homes and the business district to higher ground. After years
of bureaucratic delays and another huge flood, the town was moved
in a five-year process completed in 1983. The cost was substantial,
about $6.6 million, but as one resident wrote: "Taxpayers will never
send another flood-relief dollar to Soldiers Grove."
Acquisition and relocation gained adherents after 1993, and most
district states have participated to some extent in the FEMA strategy.
Following the 1997 flood, 82 Fargo homes were bought and removed;
this year city officials targeted another 25 homes for buyouts.
Montevideo, Minn., acquired 80 homes in a low-lying area near the
Chippewa River after the 1997 flood. Following the 1993 floods,
at a cost of over $6 million, 74 homes and businesses were bought
and demolished on Trenton Island, a small Wisconsin isle in the
Mississippi River. The islandonce known for its tawdry mix
of gambling, gangsters and prostitutionnow looks like God
swept over it in retribution. Just a handful of structures remain,
most of them elevated like storks above the floodplain.
Altogether, Wisconsin officials estimate they've acquired about
256 homes and 16 businesses since 1993. Minnesota has made over
1,300 acquisitions, and North Dakota has acquired or moved roughly
2,000 homes. South Dakota has acquired just six floodplain properties.
The wonderful thing about acquisition is that it works. Incontestably.
If a flood occurs and neither people nor possessions are there,
there is no flood disaster. "The reason we like acquisition is,
it solves the problem," noted Gary Heinrichs, floodplain planning
manager with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "If
you aren't trying to protect homes from flooding, but just removing
them ... and that land goes to a permanent open space use, there
is no more problem for that property."
Reluctant to leave
But the process is wrenching. Although the program is voluntary,
Trenton Island residents felt coerced to participate, according
to a Washington Post account, and claimed the process "ripped the
heart out of the community." Soldiers Grove isn't what it used to
be, say old-timers. Prairie du Chien's 4th Ward was moved off the
floodplain decades ago, but its sense of community has disappeared.
"There is substantial social dislocation," noted economist Steven
Taff, who was involved in the Prairie du Chien relocation. "It used
to be a community. It's not anymore. It's a bunch of space. So yeah,
we've reduced flood damages but that doesn't come without a cost."
That cost is reflected to an extent in the reluctance of some
residents to move. Many hold on because it is too expensive, socially
or economically, to move. Owners are offered the pre-flood value
of their homes (or businesses), but if they don't believe they can
afford a new home for that price, or if they simply don't want to
move, through inertia or affection for their home and community,
the voluntary acquisition program won't pull them out of harm's
David Schaffner, manager of a large Ford dealership in Fountain
City, Wis., says his business was shut down for nearly a month when
the 2001 flood put 30 inches of water in his building. It cost him
$30,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, not counting lost sales. Roughly
the same had happened in 1997.
"I hope I don't see it again, but I probably will," he said. "These
100-year floods happen way too often." But Schaffner's not contemplating
a move, whether or not the government helps pay for it. "I would
love to relocate but at this point in my life I just don't want
to do that initial investment."
Short of making floodplain evacuation mandatory, government policy
will have to rely on being ready when residents decide to move.
"You hear it every flood. People just say 'I'm just tired of it,
I'm fed up with it, I'm out of here,'" noted Wisconsin Rep. DeWayne
Johnsrud. "That's what it's going to take, but we've got to be there
and say, 'okay, we'll help you,' instead of saying 'let's build
Who doesn't want to be a millionaire?
Of course, floodplain dwellers might leave if the government sweetened
the pot and made them better offers for their sodden homes. That
seems unlikely, but policymakers are currently debating whether
to make more money available for acquisitions. In response to the
1993 flood, Congress upped the percentage of federal disaster relief
money devoted to hazard mitigation from 5 percent to 15 percent,
and about one-third of that now goes to acquisition and relocation.
Currently, the federal government pays 75 percent of the cost and
the remaining 25 percent comes from state and local sources.
In his initial budget, President George W. Bush changed the federal/state
split to 50/50, dramatically cutting the funds available for acquisition.
The move met a tidal wave of opposition. Sen. Mark Dayton from Minnesota
called it "penny-wise and pound-idiotic." Protests came even from
Joe Allbaugh, the newly appointed director of FEMA and Bush's Texas
confidant. Soon enough, the old 75/25 split was restored.
Yet some say that Bush's budget proposal, while it seemed ungenerous,
was essentially shifting responsibility for flood management from
federal shoulders to local decision-makers, a move that many advocates
for more progressive flood policy have called for since 1993. A
related issue is whether FEMA has indeed used mitigation funding
in the most cost-effective manner. A 1999 General Accounting Office
report noted that many floodplain acquisition projects were approved
without undergoing cost-benefit reviews, and those that were done
used inadequate information regarding relative flood risks. Margaret
Lawless, FEMA's director of mitigation planning, asserts that cost
tests are currently used for all floodplain buyouts. "We do cost-effectiveness
analyses for all our projects," she said.
Regardless, there are moves afoot to increase federal funding for
floodplain acquisition. In late May, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin
introduced a House bill to increase funding for mitigation to 25
percent of disaster relief monies, up from 15 percent. The legislation
would "limit the devastation communities experience after these
disasters occur," said Kind, since "voluntary relocation permanently
reduces the risk of flood loss."
Curiouslyand while aware that demand might grow in the futureofficials
in most Ninth District states don't indicate a serious lack of acquisition
funds. "We've really not run into that yet. We've been lucky enough
where we've had the money to be able to do [acquisitions]," said
Kris Eide, assistant director of operations in Minnesota's Division
of Emergency Management. "We mostly have the other issue, where
people actually like where they live and want to risk being left
Wisconsin's acquisition manager echoes the sentiment. "We haven't
had a really big demand yet for buyouts," said Roxanne Gray, Wisconsin's
hazard mitigation officer. "So far we've been able to meet the demand
of those who really want to sell." North Dakota officials agree
that funding has been sufficient, and South Dakota has not aggressively
pursued housing acquisition, focusing instead on upgrading storm
sewers, installing floodgates and raising roads.
National FEMA officials indicate that mitigation funds need not
be used for acquisition if state officials feel they have more pressing
needs. And indeed, Kind's billwhich would also provide funds
to the corps for pre-disaster relocationdoesn't simply ask
for more money to throw at the problem. It also calls for FEMA and
the corps to develop a comprehensive flood mitigation plan for the
Upper Mississippi, a plan that would establish funding priorities.